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ATHENS 2004

Soccer Stars Encounter Road Bump

Facing season's start in Europe, clubs pressure players to forgo Games, with limited success.

August 06, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

If Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Boa Morte and Tiago Mendes are awarded gold medals on Aug. 28 at the end of the men's Olympic soccer final in Athens, the three Portuguese players will have overcome the disdain and extraordinary prejudice of their respective club coaches in England.

The Olympics overlap the start of the European soccer season, and clubs, especially the big-name clubs in Britain, have fought to keep their players from going to Athens and playing in the 16-nation tournament.

Ronaldo, for example, plays for Manchester United, having been acquired last year at age 18 from Sporting Lisbon for $19.7 million.

United Coach Alex Ferguson tried hard, but failed, to prevent the winger from taking part in the Olympics. He said he feared burnout because the teenager already had helped Portugal reach the final of Euro 2004 this summer.

"When you cut a cake up too many times, there is nothing left," Ferguson told Agence France-Presse. "Next season, the boy may be exhausted."

But Ronaldo was insistent and would not back down.

"Playing in the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the career of a football player," he told reporters in Lisbon, adding that Ferguson was simply "defending his interests" and that it was "only natural that he wants me to play for Manchester."

Boa Morte, meanwhile, plays for Fulham, and the London club's Welsh coach, Chris Coleman, was equally as dismissive of the Athens Games as his Scottish colleague Ferguson.

"I didn't want him to go to the Olympics, but I have to accept his wishes," Coleman said of Boa Morte. "There is nothing we can do about it except hope that Portugal gets knocked out in the first round."

Tiago, 23, will soon be playing for Chelsea, which opens the English Premier League season on Aug. 15 against Manchester United. He was signed from Benfica in July for $18.5 million.

"Portugal has lots of good young players," Chelsea's new Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, told England's Evening Standard. "I don't think the Olympic Games ... is good for his career."

Tiago told the same newspaper that he would like to forgo the Olympics.

"I would like to stay with Chelsea," he said. "It feels good to be a Chelsea player, to wear this blue shirt, and I want to play for them."

But as Gilberto Madail, president of the Portuguese soccer federation, pointed out to the Portuguese newspaper 24Horas: "It is strange that he did not adopt that position while he was still a player with Benfica."

The inference was clear: Pressure had been applied by Chelsea officials.

Under international soccer rules, clubs cannot prevent players from participating in FIFA-sanctioned international events such as the Olympic Games. That does not mean coaches don't try to persuade players to turn down the opportunity.

Ferguson, for example, did some not-so-subtle arm-twisting on another of his players, defender Gabriel Heinze, who was acquired this summer from Paris Saint Germain for $12.5 million.

Heinze plays for Argentina and started on the team that reached the final of the Copa America in Peru. He is highly regarded by Ferguson.

"The left-back position was his," Ferguson said, purposely using the past tense. "But at the start of the season, I'm going to have to have someone else in there if he is at the Olympics.

"He could find it difficult to get into the team. In fact, he may never play a game for Manchester United."

Alex McLeish, coach of the Glasgow Rangers in Scotland and, oddly enough, one of Ferguson's former players, went to even greater lengths to prevent one of his team's players from going to Athens.

When Ranger defender Craig Moore announced that he would play for Australia in the Olympics and would miss the beginning of the Scottish season, McLeish dismissed him as team captain and placed him on the transfer list, meaning that other clubs were free to sign him.

That brought an immediate rebuke not only from Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, but also from John Howard, Australia's prime minister.

"To participate in the Olympic Games is an honor for the player and it should be an honor for the club," Blatter said.

Britain is not the only place, however, where would-be Olympians are being forced to choose between club and country. Other clubs in Europe are ignoring FIFA's rules and some Olympic teams are not fighting back.

Red Star Belgrade, for example, has refused to release some of its players to play for Serbia and Montenegro, whose coach, Vladimir Petrovic, is not forcing Red Star's hand as he could. Instead, he is making pre-Olympic excuses.

"The Olympics are coming at a very bad time for us because our players have commitments with their foreign and domestic teams in European competition," Petrovic said. "I cannot gather the best team for the Olympics."

In the end, it might not make any difference.

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