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Clubs win appeal; Messi wants to play

Aug. 06, 2008, 9:03 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) Three European clubs won their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Wednesday to keep their players out of the Olympic football tournament.

Despite the ruling, Argentina forward Lionel Messi still wants to play for his country instead of returning to FC Barcelona.

Sport's highest court ruled that Messi, Diego and Rafinha can be kept out of the Beijing Games by their clubs. Diego plays for Werder Breman and Rafinha plays for Schalke. Argentina opens on Thursday against the Ivory Coast in Shanghai and Brazil plays Belgium in Shenyang.

CAS secretary-general Matthieu Reeb said the three-member panel ruled in favor of the clubs because the Olympic tournament is not on FIFA's match calendar, and because there was no evidence that the football body's executive board obliged the clubs to release the players.

FIFA ruled on July 30 that the players must be released for the Olympic tournament because they are under 23.

Argentina coach Sergio Batista said Messi and the team were relaxed despite the apparent setback.

``He (Messi) 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.''

FIFA ruled on July 30 that the players must be released for the Olympic tournament because they are under 23.

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 sit down and negotiate a deal.

``It is now the moment for everyone to sit at the table and find a reasonable solution,'' Reeb said. ``Of course, this could affect the tournament and it's in the interest of nobody to destroy what could be an extraordinary tournament this year. But this is a matter for clubs, FIFA and the players to decide.''

Reeb said the case was narrowly focused on the three under-23 players and did not address the question of the over-23 players who are playing in the Olympic football tournament.

``This decision does not affect the eligibility status of the players who have been validly entered by their national Olympic committee and who remain fully eligible to compete in Olympic Games of Beijing 2008,'' CAS said.

The three-member panel consisted of Efraim Barak of Israel, Michele Bernasconi of Switzerland and Ralph Zloczower of Switzerland.

``FIFA is surprised and disappointed by this decision, but we respect it,'' FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a statement. ``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.

``FIFA's opinion has not changed. 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 football tournament is for players 23 and under, with three exceptions for older players. But Barcelona (Messi), Werder Bremen (Diego) and Schalke (Rafinha) complained they do not want to lose their players for the start of the season.

Both Barcelona and Schalke are scheduled to play Champions League qualifying matches during the Olympics, and they could lose out on millions of euros (dollars) if they fail to reach the group stage.

``CAS calls upon the goodwill and good sense of FIFA and the clubs to find a reasonable solution with regard to players who wish to represent their country in the Olympic Games,'' CAS said.

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.''

Gilbert Felli, the IOC's Olympic Games executive director, said the CAS decision was ``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.

``We're talking about three athletes. In the other countries, the clubs released players. We'd like to thank the clubs that are thinking about the Olympic values.''