European soccer clubs win appeal

Aug. 06, 2008, 9:43 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) Three European soccer clubs Wednesday won their appeal to keep their players out of the Olympic soccer tournament.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Lionel Messi of Argentina and Diego and Rafinha, both of Brazil, can be withheld from the Beijing Games. Soccer's governing body previously ruled players must be released for the Olympics because they are under 23.

Despite the ruling, Messi still wants to play for his country instead of returning to FC Barcelona. Diego plays for Germany's Werder Bremen and Rafinha for Schalke, another German club.

The men's soccer tournament starts Thursday, a day before the opening ceremony. Argentina faces the Ivory Coast in Shanghai and Brazil plays Belgium in Shenyang. The women's tournament started Wednesday.

CAS secretary-general Matthieu Reeb said he ruled for the clubs because the Olympic tournament is not on FIFA's match calendar, and because there was no evidence FIFA's executive board obliged the clubs to release the players.

Argentina coach Sergio Batista said Messi and the team were upbeat despite the decision.

``He told us he wants to stay,'' Batista said. ``He's relaxed and asks the people at Barcelona to understand his situation. The club is relaxed and I was figuring to put Messi in the starting 11.''

Gilbert Felli, the IOC's Olympic Games executive director, called the CAS decision ``sad for the athletes'' and blamed it on a lack of clarity in FIFA's rules.

``The athletes are here and dreaming of the Olympic Games,'' Felli told a news conference Wednesday. ``We would love to see the clarification so the young players of the world can participate in the tournament ... to let the best athletes come to the games in future.''

The ruling in sport's highest court could be bad news for countries relying on young talent. Other powerful clubs like Liverpool, which was reluctant to release Ryan Babel to the Netherlands, could ask young players to return.

``Theoretically, the clubs could ask their players to go back to Europe because they would be entitled to do so,'' Reeb said. ``And if the players do not come back there could be a case of a breach of contract.''

Reeb urged the clubs and FIFA to ``find a reasonable solution.''

``This could affect the tournament and it's in the interest of nobody to destroy what could be an extraordinary tournament this year,'' he said.

The three-member panel of the top court of international sports consisted of Efraim Barak of Israel and Michele Bernasconi and Ralph Zloczower, both of Switzerland.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he was ``surprised and disappointed by this decision, but we respect it. Nevertheless, I appeal to the clubs: 'Let your players take part in the Olympic Games. It would be an act of solidarity in perfect harmony with the Olympic spirit.'''

FIFA said Blatter sent a message to the three teams appealing for them to let the players compete.

``The Olympic football tournaments are a unique opportunity for a player as they are high-level competitions that give everyone involved, most notably young players, the chance to gain international experience that will stand them in good stead for the future,'' Blatter said. ``I regret that the CAS has not taken the Olympic spirit into consideration.''

The men's Olympic tournament is for players 23 and under, with three exceptions for older players. But Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Schalke complained they do not want to lose their players for the start of the season.

Barcelona and Schalke are to play Champions League qualifying matches during the Olympics, and they could lose out on millions if they fail to reach the group stage.

Gerald Gili, the French coach of the Ivory Coast, was confused by the late decision.

``I don't understand why the decision comes one day before the match,'' Gili said ``We have known for several years there would be Olympic Games in China.''