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FIFA took its eye off the ball

BEIJING – On the eve of what promises to be one of the most interesting Olympic men's soccer tournaments in recent memory, the sport's Summer Games future is looking far from healthy with a potentially damaging court case that threatens to permanently change the face of Olympic soccer.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of European clubs Barcelona, Schalke and Werder Bremen on Wednesday, entitling them to pull their players out of Olympic duty. The decision is likely to open the floodgates for future withdrawals of the world's top talent, meaning superstars such as Argentina's sensational youngster Lionel Messi or Brazil's former World Footballer of the Year Ronaldinho are unlikely to grace Olympic fields in forthcoming years.

FIFA, which normally casts an iron-fisted grip over the world game, has taken its eye off the ball on this occasion.

Much of international soccer law is about perception and reading between the lines. By failing to take strong steps, FIFA has opened the door for defiant action such as this.

For example, while FIFA officially dictates the club release of players for senior international events whenever a national federation demands it, there is a certain amount of give and take, especially for friendly games. An unspoken truce has been in place between the head coaches of many top clubs and national teams, and it long ago ceased to be a surprise for a high-profile player to miss an international friendly with a "minor injury" only to return to club action days later.

It is one thing for FIFA chief Sepp Blatter to hope the clubs "do the right thing" by allowing their players to take part in Beijing even if the court ruling goes their way. But Blatter and his colleagues should have taken pre-emptive and definitive action at an earlier stage.

By publicly insisting FIFA was committed to maintaining the integrity and star quality of the Olympic tournament months ago, Blatter could have avoided seeing club teams challenging his organization's authority. He admits to having been surprised by the actions of the European clubs, but that just smacks of a chronic lack of foresight.

With the UEFA Champions League qualifiers ready to get underway, should it really be a shock that teams hoping for European success would jump at the chance to take advantage of a flimsy and ineffective rule?

Blatter is already talking about firming up the rulebook in an attempt to avoid a repeat of club vs. country problems for the London Olympics in 2012. However, if the sport courts come down in favor of the clubs, FIFA will face a mighty battle to reverse the trend for future tournaments.

The hauling back of Messi to Barcelona this week will not only be a devastating blow for defending Olympic champions Argentina but also a major disappointment for the Beijing Games. The little playmaker has emerged as a beautiful player, who at 21 is arguably the best in the world.

When FIFA turned the Olympics into an under-23 event, with three over-age players allowed per team, it was an innovative and sensible move. It preserved the sanctity of the World Cup as the sport's premier tournament while offering a special opportunity to the next generation of budding stars to step into the spotlight.

It would be a shame if those noble intentions are corrupted in a courtroom this week. Yet if they are, Sepp Blatter and FIFA have no one to blame but themselves.