—  The problem for football at the Olympics is its tendency to become overshadowed by the fuss and the fury focused on the mass of other sports at the Games and, in particular by track and field athletics.

But football is the team sport – never mind basketball, hockey, volleyball, handball etc – with the longest Olympic history, stretching back to the second Olympaid in 1900. Hence it deserves more respect than it receives for its stabilising role in Olympic history and should also take more pride in that status.

The trouble is, football has not always helped itself.

FIFA and the IOC: Flying the flags for London 2012

Hence raising football’s status in terms of Olympic visibility could be one unexpectedly positive consequence of FIFA’s surprise coup last week in deeming player release obligatory.

The decision met howls of anger from the 200-strong European Club Association. These were predictable because the Olympics always falls across the start, or immediate run-up, to the mainstream league season.

In pre-First World War days the Olympics were open only to amateurs. After it FIFA decided that ‘broken time’ payment was permissible. This meant players could be compensated for wages otherwise lost while they were on national team Olympic duty.

The ‘pure amateur’ British walked away from FIFA and, thus, from the Olympics which were dominated by powerful European and South American teams in the 1920s and 1930s.

After the Second World War, with amateurism still the official Olympic code, it was impossible for professionalised South America and western Europe to compete with the so-called ‘state amateurs’ of the Soviet communist nations. Hence the 1948 victory by a team of Swedish amateurs – including future Milan legends Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Niels Liedholn – was the last western European success for 36 years.

The early 1990s saw the pragmatic IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch scrap the Games’ amateurism charade. That was fine for athletes and swimmers but created a problem for football.

FIFA (and UEFA, for that matter) did not want an effective world cup every two years and certainly not one run to the profit of the Olympic movement. Simultaneously, FIFA’s sponsors pressed for the opportunity to attack the commercial sports market in the US where the strongest version of football was played not by the men but the women.

Hence Samaranch and FIFA president Joao Havelange struck a deal. In return for the IOC admitting women’s soccer to the Games in Atlanta in 1996, FIFA was ‘allowed’ to restrict the Olympic men’s tournament to players under 23. But, with the star-name public attraction and the US market in mind, teams were permitted three over-age players.

The pact has held firm ever since. Both IOC and FIFA grumble occasionally but recognise the practical common sense of the compromise. Thus the Olympic keeps football (one of its most significant ticketed events) and FIFA has one further stage in its own age group system of championships.

Olympic football being a hybrid event, however, FIFA has never included it in the international calendar. That led to major upset before Beijing in 2008 with countries, clubs and players wrangling over the right to play (or not to play).

FIFA’s belated attempt to enforce player release was outlawed by the Court of Arbitration of Sport. Mostly clubs and countries, often with extreme bad grace, found a way of muddling through.

Barcelona, for example, agreed reluctantly to let Leo Messi play for Argentina in return for a promise that he would not be selected for a number of forthcoming national team friendlies.

Similarly Barcelona’s refusal to release Ronaldinho saw the player accept a transfer offer from Milan who did agree to release him for the Games (Ironically Messi’s Argentina beat Ronaldinho’s Brazil in the semi-finals).

Now FIFA’s executive committee has stepped in early by suddenly deciding to enforce player release for London 2012.

Brazil’s top clubs are not happy because they had already agreed to run their national championship right through Games time;

England’s clubs are fretting because their Olympic-shadowed pre-season threatens to be disrupted further by Stuart Pearce’s new power on behalf of Team GB (Wilshere, Bale, Ramsey etc); and

Bayern Munich are irritated that they will not be able to prevent new starlet Xherdan Shaqiri, arriving shortly from Basel, heading off with Switzerland.

FIFA’s decision may have owed a little to embarrassment at senior officials having been caught, at last, with their hands in the tills of long-bankrupt ISL which was marketing partner to both FIFA and the IOC.

Rather more, however, the Olympic price is one FIFA expects clubs to pay in return for the world federation’s expansion of the insurance arrangements for players on national team duty – as the clubs have long demanded.

Just goes to show, there’s no such thing as a free insurance policy.

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