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Men’s soccer tournament looking for a niche in England

Forget Danny Boyle's musical on steroids. No sports fan cares about the opening ceremony, anyhow. The 2012 London Olympics start Thursday night when Great Britain's men's soccer team kicks off at Old Trafford against Senegal.

This is England. Old Trafford is Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Soccer's come home, they keep telling us here, and let's see whether the event finds a niche in England the way it appeared to at the 2008 Beijing Games. Absent the star power basketball derives from the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, the soccer tournament doesn't have much of a cachet among the sports cognoscente, especially when it falls on the heels of, say, the Euros as is the case this time around.

It is an under-23 tournament, with each country allowed three over-age players. For most countries, selecting over-age players is an easy process: based on health and the cooperation of teams, players and agents, the spots can be used to reward revered players for past international duty, or as a means of blooding younger players for future duty. Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi were part of Argentina's gold-medal team in Beijing, and Messi's former coach at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, said was a better player for the experience.

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Yet – surprise – the host nation has made a cock-up of their team. Manager Stuart Pearce, who forgot the word 'interim' was in front of his title as national team manager after Fabio Capello's firing, aced it in selecting Ryan Giggs, a pro's pro, for Team GB. But then he left off David Beckham, which is simply ludicrous given his connection to the sport, London's successful bid for the Games, and to the national team. Normally, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales compete separately on the international scene. They are as one for this event – except there is nary a Scot or Ulsterman on the team.

Most every other country handles their selections with dexterity. Uruguay and Brazil have their men's national team coaches running their Olympic squads – South American nations have always taken Olympic soccer seriously, because for some of them it was an entry point to international glory.

But that's okay. One of the strengths of the Olympic men's tournament is that it lends itself to a kind of malleability. You reap what you sow in this tournament and in that regard there is a lesson here for the NHL, whose owners understandably are becoming less enthralled with the idea of freeing up players and shutting down their league to help Jacques Rogge make money.

It was announced this week that baseball and softball will join together in an attempt to return to the Olympics, and that is a lost cause. The IOC knows it won't generate money without Major League players, and that will never happen. The game will never shut down, and there is no such thing as an over-age Major League baseball player who is out of contract who could be added to supplement a young roster. No baseball version of Ryan Giggs would be made available. The same holds true for hockey. At first glance, it is easy to see how structuring the Olympic hockey competition as an under-23 event with over-age players. But the best under-23 players in the world are all playing in the NHL, so that doesn't answer the legitimate concerns of ownership. What's left? A junior tournament? An ersatz Spengler Cup?

The NHL will face a mutiny within its ranks of Russian players if it doesn't go to Sochi in 2014. Fine. Make it work one more time, but know that in the long run it is not in the NHL's best interests to be attached to the IOC at the hips.

Luckily for the NHL, the answer to their concerns is sitting across the table during collective bargaining. There are myriad issues as the owners and players hash out a new collective bargaining agreement but if Gary Bettman and his henchmen can pull in their talons for a minute they'll find that union chief Donald Fehr is a man you can do business with when it comes to international hockey.

Fehr is a former USOC member; an avowed internationalist. It was on his watch that the Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League owners formed a joint partnership leading to the birth of the World Baseball Classic. It has its flaws, but it has also shown itself to be a cautious, financially-balanced step forward for an often hide-bound sport. Mostly what it's done is recognized that it is what it is, nothing more or less.

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There is much to be skeptical about as the NHL goes through this necessary CBA process, but at a time when the attention of the sports world shifts beyond the normal league tables, there is a reason to be optimistic about hockey finding it's way internationally.

It's time for the hockey powers that be to throw off the shackles of the Olympics, and have a proper World Cup of hockey without getting into bed with Jacques Rogge and the IOC. It's time to make some money and take control of the international marketing of their sport, and Donald Fehr's the guy to help them accomplish the task.

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