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Paris Games: Welcome to the weird world of men’s soccer at the Olympics

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Paris Games: Welcome to the weird world of men’s soccer at the Olympics
Sport

Sport

Paris Games: Welcome to the weird world of men’s soccer at the Olympics

2024-06-25 23:43 Last Updated At:06-26 00:00

Kylian Mbappé wanted to be there. France coach Thierry Henry wanted it too.

In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country's finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games.

Welcome to the weird of world of men's Olympic soccer.

The world's most popular sport occupies a strange space at the Games — confused by compromises and contortions that appear designed to ensure it remains a part of the roster so long as it provides the least possible disruption to teams, players and authorities, whose priorities lie elsewhere.

“It’s become a complete mishmash over the years from being something that was quite important... to something that quite a lot of people would like scrapped because the calendar is so clogged up,” soccer author Steve Menary told The Associated Press.

Men's soccer has been part of the Olympics since the 1900 Games, also in Paris. The only time it hasn't featured since then was at Los Angeles in 1932 to help promote the newly conceived World Cup.

Wind the clock forward and the World Cup is now arguably the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Olympic soccer pales in comparison and a gold medal simply isn't the ultimate prize for fabulously wealthy players already caught up in tensions between club and international obligations and the battle to control ever-limited gaps in the calendar.

The result is an international soccer tournament unlike any other, with exceptions and caveats shoe-horned in at all angles.

“Football is the world’s global ritual,” David Goldblatt, author of “The Games – A Global History of the Olympics,” told the AP. “The balance of power and money and influence between football and every other sport combined — and FIFA and the IOC — has just tipped decisively in favor of football in the last 20 years.

“Once upon a time the Olympics could have claimed to be the greatest sporting show on earth.”

While that may still be the case for track and field and myriad other events, in terms of men's soccer, it is firmly in the shadow of the most popular competitions like the World Cup, Champions League and Premier League.

It means that the job of assembling a squad to play at the Games is not as straightforward as picking your country's best players.

Mbappé is a case in point.

“I have always had the same ambition," the World Cup champion said in March. "I have always said that I wanted to go, but it doesn’t depend on me.”

And this is where it gets tricky.

Unlike other major soccer tournaments like the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America, the Olympic men's soccer event is not featured on world governing body FIFA's International Match Calendar.

That's important because clubs are only required to release players for tournaments included on the calendar.

In 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld an appeal by Barcelona to stop Lionel Messi from competing at the Beijing Games. Barcelona eventually relented and Messi went on to lead Argentina to gold.

So despite Mbappé's desire to be part of France’s team — the decision was not his to make as he's joined Real Madrid. And even Macron's plea for Madrid to "free up Kylian for the Olympic Games,” didn't work.

Meanwhile, the women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics is on FIFA’s calendar and will therefore feature the top players. Women's soccer was added to the Olympics in 1996.

It's ironic that Barcelona fought so hard to stop Messi from competing, given the Spanish Football Federation compels its teams to allow Spanish players to take part in the Games.

For Tokyo in 2021, Spain included six members of its squad that had been involved in the European Championship earlier that summer. Barcelona Midfielder suffered injury problems after doubling up at the last Euros and Olympics and played close to 70 games that season.

World players' union FIFPRO has raised concerns about the demands on players in an ever-congested calendar.

Following the mid-season World Cup in 2022 it said that 43% of players surveyed had experienced “extreme or increased mental fatigue.”

Fears over the mental and physical health of players have seen the union take legal action to demand FIFA reschedule the newly expanded Club World Cup that will take place in 2025.

“Professional footballers are playing too many games,” Goldblatt said. “There is absolutely no shortage of football tournaments both meaningful and entertaining.”

While another team sport such as basketball will bring together the NBA's finest players and famously produced the Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992, men's soccer has had to go down a different route.

A compromise, likely intended to avoid clashes with club teams, reached in 1992 made the tournament age-restricted to under 23s. That in itself is something of an oddity, given FIFA's only age-restricted World Cups are for U17s and U20s. The IOC has voiced concerns over FIFA's attempts to expand the popularity of the World Cup at the expense of other events.

“It is hard enough getting the stars to show up as it is given the calendar issues,” Goldblatt said. “I think that was just ‘Lets get some stars in.’ It’s a sort of cobbled together thing.”

The problem with a catchment of U23 also is many players by that age would already be established at top teams around the world and at international level.

Take Jude Bellingham, for example, who was a veteran of two major international tournaments for England by the time he signed for Real Madrid at the age of 19.

To confuse matters further, an additional workaround allows each team to include three overage players.

That quickly led to speculation Messi could be included in Argentina's squad, though Inter Miami would likely not have been too happy about its just-turned 37-year-old icon playing at the Copa America and the Olympics in the middle of the MLS season.

Not that countries haven't used the overage quota to bring in big stars.

Neymar was one of Brazil's overage players at Rio 2016 and captained his country to gold.

Men's soccer used to be amateur event, but that led to its own problems because different countries had different ideas about what it was to be an amateur.

“Everyone had different rules. None of which matched up,” said Menary, author of “GB United? British Olympic Football and the End of the Amateur Dream.”

In his book, Menary recounts how Britain played Italy at the Rome Games in 1960.

“The Italian team, their rule was if you are under 21 you couldn’t be a professional,” he said. “The Italian U21 team had some of the best players Italy have ever had.”

By comparison, Britain fielded a team of non-league players... and still drew 2-2.

While some of soccer's most powerful nations, such as Argentina, France and Spain are in the field of 16 teams at the Games, the likes of Mali, Dominican Republic and Guinea are less obvious qualifiers.

The United States men's team is back for the first time since 2008.

Brazil — winner of the last two editions — didn't qualify.

Britain, which won three of the first four editions, no longer enters a men's team, with suggestions in the past that by doing so it could jeopardize the independent statuses of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Britain does, however, enter a team into the women's event and made an exception for the men at London 2012.

It may not be the strongest lineup of nations, but unlike other major tournaments, the format of the Olympics does appear to produce more surprise winners like Nigeria at Atlanta in 1996 and Cameroon four years later in Sydney.

It is unlikely Olympic men's soccer will ever rival the big international or club competitions again.

But it can still produce iconic moments.

“In Nigeria and Cameroon when they won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta and Sydney, that was a big deal because no African team has won the World Cup,” Goldblatt said. “For some people it assumes significance and importance.”

Menary agrees and cites the case of Fiji forward Roy Krishna, who played in Rio.

"That’s going to be the highlight of his career,” Menary said. “That was a massive thing. For those guys who (for them) that is the only chance to play in a big thing like that, it is huge.”

James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with French soccer player Kylian Mbappe next to head coach Didier Deschamps as he arrives for lunch at the national soccer team training center in Clairefontaine, west of Paris, Monday, June 3, 2024. In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country's finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with French soccer player Kylian Mbappe next to head coach Didier Deschamps as he arrives for lunch at the national soccer team training center in Clairefontaine, west of Paris, Monday, June 3, 2024. In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country's finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - France's Kylian Mbappe reacts during the international friendly soccer match between France and Canada at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux, southwestern France, Sunday, June 9, 2024. In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country's finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games. (AP Photo/Yohan Bonnet, File)

FILE - France's Kylian Mbappe reacts during the international friendly soccer match between France and Canada at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux, southwestern France, Sunday, June 9, 2024. In the end, not even French president Emmanuel Macron could pull enough strings to free up his country's finest soccer player to compete in the Paris Games. (AP Photo/Yohan Bonnet, File)

A leading far-right figure in the Israeli government visited Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site on Thursday, a move that threatened cease-fire talks to end the 9-month-old war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s Public Security Minister, said he went to the contested compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray for the return of Israeli hostages in Gaza and to pressure Israel’s prime minister to continue with the military campaign in the territory.

Israeli negotiators were in Cairo on Wednesday to press ahead with cease-fire talks, as Israel and Hamas consider the latest proposal.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack sparked the war when militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducting about 250. Since then, Israeli ground offensives and bombardments have killed more than 38,600 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry. It does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count.

Hamas' Oct. 7 attack sparked the war when militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducting about 250. Since then, Israeli ground offensives and bombardments have killed more than 38,600 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry. It does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count.

Two international courts have accused Israel of war crimes and genocide – charges Israel denies. Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are crammed into squalid tent camps in central and southern Gaza. Israeli restrictions, fighting and the breakdown of law and order have limited humanitarian aid efforts, causing widespread hunger and sparking fears of famine.

Here’s the latest:

BEIRUT — Israeli drone strikes early Thursday in Lebanon killed at least one person, who was identified as Mohammad Hamed Jabbara, one of the leaders of the militant Sunni al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group.

In a statement, the political and militant group said Jabbara was killed in a strike in the western Bekaa area in Lebanon not far from the Syrian border. The group gave no further details but Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the drone fired a rocket at him while he was driving a pickup truck.

The Israeli military described Jabara as a Hamas operative in Lebanon who helped coordinate Islamic Group attacks targeting northern Israel.

The armed wing of the Islamic Group, the Fajr Forces, has also attacked northern Israel alongside its allies, Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Similarly to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the group’s founded was inspired by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, an Israeli drone struck a civilian vehicle in a village near the southern coastal city of Tyre. It’s unclear who was in the vehicle and whether they were killed or wounded.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the strikes, though it has acknowledged in previous instances that its attacks have targeted Hezbollah militants and allies.

Hezbollah launched attacks against Israel after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza on Oct. 7 with the Hamas attack on southern Israel.

Since then, Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon have killed over 450 people, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also more than 80 civilians and non-combatants. On the Israeli side, 21 soldiers and 13 civilians have been killed since the war in Gaza began.

Tens of thousands of people on both sides of the tense Lebanon-Israel frontier have been displaced in the monthslong war.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament extended a temporary law which allows the country to shut down foreign media outlets they consider a threat to Israel’s security. In a marathon session that lasted until early Thursday morning, the parliament gave final approval to extend the emergency law until Nov. 30.

Israeli officials used the new law on May 5 to close Qatar-based Al Jazeera within Israel, confiscating its equipment, banning its broadcasts and blocking its websites.

Under the law, Israel’s Communications Ministry also briefly seized AP broadcasting equipment from southern Israel after accusing it of violating a new media law by providing images to Al Jazeera. The government returned the equipment to AP several hours later.

A bill that would make the emergency legislation permanent is currently making its way through the Israeli parliament. The draft said a permanent bill is needed because Israel “has faced serious security threats since its establishment and is expected to continue to face them in the future, possibly even more severely.”

Critics say the measure passed earlier this year is undemocratic and a threat to press freedom.

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Overnight Israeli strikes Thursday in central Gaza killed at least 11 people, including women and children.

Early Thursday an Israeli strike hit a house in central Gaza, killing at least six people, while another strike later hit a car, killing at least three. The dead were taken to the Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, where an Associated Press journalist counted the bodies.

Among the six killed in the early strike in Zawaida were two children and two women. The area struck is close to Deir al-Balah, where many Palestinians displaced from across the war-torn Gaza Strip have fled.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s Civil Defense organization said they pulled two dead bodies and seven wounded from the rubble following an Israeli airstrike in Bureij that hit a family house.

Israel’s military said it had targeted two commanders from the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, one from the group's naval forces and the other responsible for launches in the city of Shujaiya.

Destroyed buildings stand in the Gaza Strip during the sunset as seen from southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Destroyed buildings stand in the Gaza Strip during the sunset as seen from southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Relatives and friends of Israeli soldiers who were killed and of those who were kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack take part in a march in southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, demanding the creation of a committee of inquiry to investigate the events on that day. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Relatives and friends of Israeli soldiers who were killed and of those who were kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack take part in a march in southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, demanding the creation of a committee of inquiry to investigate the events on that day. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses lawmakers in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses lawmakers in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

FILE - This image provided by the U.S. Army shows trucks loaded with humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates and the United States Agency for International Development cross the Trident Pier before arriving on the beach on the Gaza Strip, May 17, 2024. The U.S. military-built pier to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza is being dismantled and brought home, ending a mission that has been fraught with weather and security problems. (Staff Sgt. Malcolm Cohens-Ashley/U.S. Army via AP, File)

FILE - This image provided by the U.S. Army shows trucks loaded with humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates and the United States Agency for International Development cross the Trident Pier before arriving on the beach on the Gaza Strip, May 17, 2024. The U.S. military-built pier to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza is being dismantled and brought home, ending a mission that has been fraught with weather and security problems. (Staff Sgt. Malcolm Cohens-Ashley/U.S. Army via AP, File)

Palestinians pray next to the bodies of their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Deir al-Balah, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Palestinians pray next to the bodies of their relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Deir al-Balah, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Mahmoud Rayhan, who was displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, stands at a makeshift tent camp in Khan Younis, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are struggling to maintain their mental health with few resources and no safe places to recover after nine months of war. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Mahmoud Rayhan, who was displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, stands at a makeshift tent camp in Khan Younis, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are struggling to maintain their mental health with few resources and no safe places to recover after nine months of war. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

FILE - The image provided by U.S, Central Command, shows U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), U.S. Navy sailors assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, and Israel Defense Forces placing the Trident Pier on the coast of Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024. The U.S. military-built pier to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza is being dismantled and brought home, ending a mission that has been fraught with weather and security problems. (U.S. Central Command via AP)

FILE - The image provided by U.S, Central Command, shows U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), U.S. Navy sailors assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, and Israel Defense Forces placing the Trident Pier on the coast of Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024. The U.S. military-built pier to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza is being dismantled and brought home, ending a mission that has been fraught with weather and security problems. (U.S. Central Command via AP)

The sun sets behind the buildings in the Gaza Strip as seen from southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

The sun sets behind the buildings in the Gaza Strip as seen from southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Palestinian Mahmoud Mikdad holds the body of his 21-month-old child Yaman, killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Deir al-Balah, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Palestinian Mahmoud Mikdad holds the body of his 21-month-old child Yaman, killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Deir al-Balah, Tuesday, July 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Relatives and friends of Israeli soldiers who were killed and of those who were kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack take part in a march in southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, demanding the creation of a committee of inquiry to investigate the events on that day. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Relatives and friends of Israeli soldiers who were killed and of those who were kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack take part in a march in southern Israel, Wednesday, July 17, 2024, demanding the creation of a committee of inquiry to investigate the events on that day. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

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