Athens soccer squeezed into busy year
Posted: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM; Updated: Saturday August 7, 2004 5:29PM
LONDON, Aug 6 (Reuters) -- Following on from Euro 2004, the Copa America and the Asian Cup, the Olympic soccer tournament in Athens may struggle to make headlines.
An overkill of the beautiful game in the last two months is only the start of Olympic soccer's problems, but as in previous Games the standard of play and the excitement the tournament generates could pleasantly surprise.
An age limit of 23 naturally means many of the world's top footballers will not be in Athens, even if they wanted to be, although three over-age players are permitted in each squad.
However, some of world soccer's bright young things will be appearing, much to the annoyance of their club bosses with European league campaigns starting up as the flame flickers in Athens.
Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, 19, was instrumental in Portugal's run to the Euro 2004 final and, just over a month later, he will turn out for their Olympic team in Athens.
He could miss the first two weeks of the English premier league season, not to mention Champions League qualifiers, if Portugal reach the final after facing Iraq, Morocco and Costa Rica in the early stages.
United manager Alex Ferguson was further angered when new signing Gabriel Heinze was named in Argentina's impressive Olympic squad, despite appearing for the South Americans in their Copa America final defeat by Brazil on July 25.
Argentina, boosted by the inclusion of Barcelona striker Javier Saviola and 31-year-old Valencia defender Roberto Ayala, are in Group C alongside Serbia-Montenegro, Tunisia and Australia, whose team selection has also caused controversy.
Glasgow Rangers defender Craig Moore was stripped of the captaincy and put on the transfer list after manager Alex McLeish reacted furiously to his wish to play in the Olympics.
AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo and Parma's exciting young striker Alberto Gilardino will feature in a strong Italy side, who compete with Paraguay, Japan and Ghana in Group B.
The 16-team tournament will lack the sparkle of Brazil and holders Cameroon, who both failed to qualify, but includes hosts Greece, fresh from their shock Euro 2004 win.
The euphoria that victory generated will add extra spice even if the Greek team which plays South Korea, Mali and Mexico in the first round contains only one member of the squad that lifted the European Championship trophy.
The Olympic movement has always felt uncomfortable including professional soccer in its ranks. Full-time footballers were allowed to participate for the first time only in 1984.
The addition of women's soccer in the Atlanta Games, however, helped to restore some credibility to the amateur ethos.
World Champions Germany and the United States will be hot tips for gold in the women's event, although the Americans must play Greece, Brazil and Australia in Group G while the other two groups contain only three teams.
Soccer will kick off the Athens Olympics two days before next Friday's opening ceremony with group matches in stadiums across Greece.
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