By Sam Arnold, LPC student at College of Law
With the London 2012 Olympic Games just around the corner there seems to be a heightened level of excitement about the men’s football tournament. Maybe it’s because of the inclusion of aGreat Britain team, or because of the fact that the tournament will be played out at stadiums accessible to the large majority of the general public – maybe it’s both; however, is the excitement justified?
One person who is most definitely looking forward to the big kick off is Manchester United attacker Ryan Giggs. Giggs, the most decorated individual in Premier League history cites in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that his decision to make himself available for selection is based on the fact that, despite his domestic success, he has never featured in a major international tournament for his native Wales – at the tender age of 37 the Olympics may be his last chance to play international football at such a level.
Giggs has also stated that the chance to play alongside former team mate, and friend of over twenty years, David Beckham, is something that he doesn’t feel he can pass up.
Luckily then for Giggs, in a press conference last month, Manchester United team manager Sir Alex Ferguson stated that it would only be Giggs who may be selected for Olympic duty. The result of a particularly grueling domestic Premier League season, as well as the small matter of Euro 2012 just around the corner, means Ferguson has opted to instead offer his players a rest period before the new campaign begins in August.
So, from a sports law perspective, the question has to be, can a domestic club manager legally prevent his players from participating at the Olympic Games?
Prior to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 a landmark ruling was handed down which involved three professional international footballers, including FC Barcelona and Argentina forward, Lionel Messi – you may of heard of him.
The dispute arose when the Argentine Olympic Committee stated their intention to take Messi toJapanas part of their already formidable team (which also included Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria, and Manchester City’s title winning hero, Sergio “Kun” Aguero). Barcelona, keen to protect their most prized of assets, refused the call up; an approach also taken by German club Werder Bremen in relation to their Brazilian representatives, Rafinha and Diego.
The case was brought before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which acts as a kind of “in-house” high-court for international sport, the main question being whether or not a domestic football club should have to release its players for international duties when the games to be played are not featured on FIFA’s international fixture calendar. The calendar sets out all the international fixtures for that year that clubs are obliged under FIFA Rules and Regulations to release their players for. Unsurprisingly, FIFA sanctioned friendly fixtures and international tournaments, including the World Cup and African Cup of Nations are included on the calendar, but the games scheduled in the Olympics are not.
After much deliberation, CAS decided in favor of FC Barcelona and Werder Bremen, ruling that if called back by their respective clubs, the Olympic Associations would be obliged to release the players from the squads. The effect of this judgment is that should a domestic club not wish to release their players for Olympic duty, they don’t have to; an option, as above, already exercised by Sir Alex Ferguson, and also by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in relation to fitness-shy Jack Wilshere.
** Ironically, after much negotiation between Messi’s then head coach Pep Guardiola, and the powers that be at FC Barcelona, Messi was encouraged to play at the 2008 Games, as Guardiola himself had successfully done a number of years previously with a gold medal winning Spain side. Messi being Messi followed suit, and also came back with the top prize.**
It will be interesting to see if the Messi case will have any impact in the future. Ryan Giggs is one of the fortunate ones – he wants to play for Team GB and has been granted permission by his club. But what, for example, if Wayne Rooney wanted to play? Surely, there is an implied term in all players’ contracts that provides that they will be treated in the same manner as their teammates? You can almost picture the spirited individual who knocks on Sir Alex’s door and asks “If Giggs can play, what can’t I?” They would be well within their rights to ask the question, and challenge any decision – after all, it was the challenge of Barcelona and Werder Bremen that brought this rule to light.
And what of the player that is determined to feature at an Olympic Games at some point in their career? Suppose Ryan Giggs has the tournament of his life, finally getting the chance to show off his talents on an international platform – he heads back to Old Trafford and tells his teammates that it was the best experience of his life. Rooney, Welbeck, De Gea, Hernandez, Cleverley et al, all young enough to still be playing when the next Games come around, decide that they want to play at the Olympics and instruct their agents / lawyers / representatives to begin negotiations over a new contract – one which contains an express clause that states that if selected, the club must release them to play? Is the club going to refuse such a request, and chance an unhappy playing squad?
No such case has yet to be brought, but who knows what the future holds.
So what of Team GB? Whilst undoubtedly first team coach Stuart Pearce will have a wealth of household names at his disposal, expectant fans may see a much depleted side.
First thing to consider – Olympic Rules and Regulations provide that out of a squad of eighteen, only three players are permitted to be over the age of twenty-three. Whilst there does seem to be an excellent crop of young British players currently competing at the highest level – Gareth Bale, Kyle Walker, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Ryan Bertrand et al) the age requirement does certainly eliminate a large proportion of Team GB’s key players.
Having publicly expressed their desire to feature, it would be a safe bet to suggest that two of the three will be Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, so that only leaves room for one more senior, more established player.
Second thing to consider – The Messi/Rafinha/Diego ruling. In short, if managers don’t want to release their players, they don’t have to. Bye, bye Manchester United players.
The final thing to consider – Euro 2012, which is due to start in June. Are managers going to happily release their best players to their respective Olympic sides having just played a full domestic season, and an international tournament, where player release is mandatory? Or are they going to exercise their right to rebuff any approach? My prediction would most certainly be the latter.
Fear not though fellow spectators, for there is a massive positive to this predicament. Once the big names have shown what they can do, or perhaps more accurately what they can’t do, at Euro 2012, a chance will open up for those who have not yet had the chance to show what they can do at the highest international level. Bar the three over twenty-three players, which will possibly include Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, there are younger, fresher players eager to show their capabilities on a global scale. Argentina gave such a chance to these youngsters in Beijing. They reaped the rewards then, and are in a very good position to do so in the future.
Argentina 2008 Olympic Squad:
Oscar Ustari and Sergio Romero.
Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fazio, Nicolas Burdisso, Luciano Monzon.
Fernando Gago, Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano, Juan Roman Riquelme, Angel Di Maria, Jose Sosa, Diego Buonanotte.
Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lautaro Acosta, Sergio Aguero.
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Sam Arnold, law student studying the LPC at the College of Law
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