Argentine star Messi to make controversial Olympics debut

Beijing, August 6:

Argentina ignited a major international football row on Wednesday by insisting superstar striker Lionel Messi will make a controversial Olympic Games debut.

Sergio Batista, the coach of the defending Olympic champions, placed himself firmly on a collision course with Messi’s Barcelona employers who want the 21-year-old to play in a Champions League tie instead. “The player is here and will remain with the team. He will start Thursday’s game (against Ivory Coast in Shanghai) from the beginning and I’m sure he can be with us for the rest of the competition,” said Batista.

The coach’s defiant stand came just hours after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that clubs were not obliged to release players for the Olympics. The CAS ruling also had major implications for Argentina’s fellow South American giants Brazil ahead of the start of Thursday’s tournament, primarily an Under-23 event although teams can field over-age players.

Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Schalke had all been fighting to keep their young stars — Argentina’s Messi and Brazil’s Diego and Rafinha — out of the Games, which clash with their own season after appealing an earlier ruling by FIFA which said players must be allowed to compete in Beijing.

Asked if the player will return to Spain in the light of the CAS ruling, Batista said: “Not at this time, no. I have spoken with him and he wants to stay here with the rest of the team.

Earlier, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said he was “surprised and disappointed by the decision, but we respect it”. Both Barcelona and Schalke have Champions League qualifiers during the Olympics, where the football final takes place on August 22, while Bremen want Diego for the start of the Bundesliga on August 15. Normally, clubs must release players for internationals.

But CAS, explaining their decision, said: “The Olympic tournament doesn’t feature in the official FIFA calendar and there is no executive decision by FIFA which establishes a right of release for Under-23 players for this tournament.

It added: “CAS appeals to the good sense of the clubs and FIFA to find a reasonable solution which will allow a player who wishes to represent his country to compete in the Olympic Games.”