The club versus country debate has always been a source of controversy in football, and it is particularly pertinent this summer, as up to seven Benfica players could be selected for the Olympic Games in Brazil. The men’s tournament runs from August 4th to 20th, coinciding with the first three competitive fixtures of the 2016/17 season. According to Goal.com’s Bruno Andrade, Benfica are considering blocking all of their players from participating in the tournament. But is that fair? David Pritchett and Jordan Russell discuss both sides of the debate.
CLUB BEFORE COUNTRY
The harsh reality is that Olympic football fails to capture people's imagination in the same way as more prestigious competitions such as the World Cup, Copa América or European Championships. One of the main reasons for this is that the men’s event is essentially a youth tournament, with only three players older than 23 permitted in each squad. There will certainly be some talented players on show in Brazil, but the sport’s biggest stars will be absent.
The main problem with the football at Rio 2016 is the scheduling. At London 2012, the men’s tournament ended on August 11th, a full week before Benfica’s first competitive fixture of the 2012/13 campaign. This time around, the Eagles could be without seven players for Matchdays 1 and 2 of the Liga NOS, together with the Supertaça against Braga on August 7th.
Benfica can ill afford to lose so many players at the start of a season that is sure to be more competitive than ever, as Nuno Espírito Santo conducts a revolution of sorts at FC Porto, and Sporting strive for continued improvement under Jorge Jesus. Given the relentless rate at which “Os Três Grandes” rack up points, one or two early-season slip-ups could prove decisive in the title race. The Supertaça is somewhat less important, but still represents an opportunity to win a trophy and lay down a marker for the season ahead.
In reality, some players may miss more than three games, as they recover from the rigours of tournament football and re-adjust to Portuguese time, which is some 4 hours ahead of Rio. For Victor Lindelöf and Raúl Jiménez, the Olympic Games would be their second international competition of the summer, so fatigue is a genuine concern.
Besides missing Benfica’s initial fixtures, the players will be away for the final weeks of preseason training. This is a critical period, during which Rui Vitória and his staff must ensure that the squad is physically prepared for the demands of the season ahead. It is also a time for the coach to convey his tactical ideas, and, with several new signings already confirmed, a vital period for forming relationships both on and off the pitch.
COUNTRY BEFORE CLUB
Benfica run the risk of demoralising the individuals that are denied the chance to go to Brazil. The club could stir a revolt within the squad which would create a far greater problem than losing a few players at the beginning of the season. In fact, disharmony in the squad could be as big a threat to their title challenge as that from Sporting and Porto themselves. Benfica’s team spirit was a major factor in last season’s stunning comeback, so the club’s hierarchy must ask themselves, is it really worth it?
Since the Olympic Games are not part of the official FIFA calendar, there would be no legal ramifications for Benfica should they refuse to release their players. Then again, the public relations angle is worth considering. Arguably, a blunt refusal would not reflect well on Benfica as an institution, and as the global brand that it is today. A lot depends on what other major clubs decide to do, as Benfica will not be judged in isolation. The early indications are that most Premier League clubs will not release their ‘overage’ stars without a fight.
Lastly, for some of the less established players, Olympic football could be a valuable experience. The overall standard may be lower than at other major tournaments, but there will still be pressure to contend with, and different styles of play to adapt to. Also, success breeds confidence, and Portugal, Brazil and Argentina stand a very good chance of going a long way in the tournament. This is particularly relevant to Gonçalo Guedes and Nélson Semedo, who lost their way a little in the second half of last season.
BENFIQUISTAS HAVE THEIR SAY
The Benfica fans are completely divided over the issue. Of the 312 Benfiquistas that participated in our 48-hour Twitter poll, 46% want the players released, 26% would resist the call-ups, and 28% would decide on a player-by-player basis.
Ederson travelled to the USA for the Copa América, but was forced to withdraw with a muscle injury, so he should be keen to play at the Olympics, especially as they will take place in his homeland. The youngster has been the first choice goalkeeper for Brazil’s under-23 side for some time now, so it would be harsh to deny him the opportunity at this late stage. In addition, Benfica have a more than capable replacement in Júlio César, provided he is fully fit by the start of the season. Despite this, the Brazilian press feel that Ederson will be overlooked in favour of 37-year old Palmeiras stopper Fernando Prass.
Editor’s verdict: Ederson should go as Brazil’s number one if Júlio César is 100% fit.
Victor Lindelöf has already represented Sweden at Euro 2016 this summer, so Benfica would be justified in resisting his selection. The 21-year old formed an excellent defensive partnership with Jardel last season, and question marks remain over the form and fitness of Luisão and Lisandro, so Lindelöf is likely to retain his place in Benfica’s starting eleven.
Editor’s verdict: The ‘Iceman’ is needed in Portugal!
Like Lindelöf, Raúl Jiménez has already participated in a major international tournament this summer, representing Mexico at the Copa América. Nonetheless, the striker is desperate to play in Brazil, as he revealed on live television this week. Although the Mexican is not a guaranteed starter for Benfica, he is a great option to have on the bench, as he demonstrated with several crucial goals towards the end of last season.
Editor’s verdict: Raúl is a game-changer, and should not be released.
Nélson Semedo and Gonçalo Guedes showed huge potential at the start of last season, but for varying reasons, they both faded badly. A successful tournament with Portugal would give the pair a valuable confidence boost. Benfica are well stocked on the wings, so Guedes would not be badly missed. Likewise, André Almeida has made the right-back slot his own, and Lindelöf could play there in an emergency, so Semedo could also be spared. Hélder Costa is expected to be loaned out again this season, so his absence would not be noticed.
Editor’s verdict: Involvement in an international tournament would aid their development.
Franco Cervi arrives this summer from Rosario Central in Argentina. The 22-year old has no prior experience of European football, so his introduction to Benfica’s first team should be gradual, and he is unlikely to be a starter in August. Then again, Argentina have an embarrassment of riches in forward positions, so he is by no means guaranteed of a place on the plane to Brazil.
Editor’s verdict: Let him go, if selected.