Work in Sports
No Kanu, Kewell, Romario as soccer kicks off Olympics
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Nwankwo Kanu prefers to play for Arsenal, Harry Kewell is on crutches and Romario can't persuade Brazil to pick him.
The stars who were going to be the biggest names at the Olympic soccer tournament won't be kicking a ball in Australia.
Nigeria's standout player in its historic Olympic triumph four years ago at Atlanta, Kanu said Saturday he had put club before country this time and is staying behind in England to play for the Gunners.
Brazilian coach Wanderley Luxemburgo has put his nation's Olympic hopes on the shoulders of a young squad and has turned down a strong campaign by Romario and the media to include the 1994 World Cup star on the roster for Sydney 2000.
Kewell was all set to lead Australia's challenge for a soccer gold medal on home turf. But he needed surgery to cure an Achilles tendon problem Friday, after being sidelined for the first five rounds of the English season.
"Fortunately, according to the surgeon, the operation went very well," the 21-year-old Leeds United striker told the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, three days before the Olympic soccer tournament kicks off.
"It was a last resort. But I wasn't left with much of a choice. My goal now is to be back on the pitch before Christmas."
Another Aussie star, Paul Okon, broke his foot a week ago playing for English club Middlesbrough and United States midfielder Chris Armas, a regular on the national team, is sidelined with a knee ligament injury. That means the soccer tournament has been further weakened and coaches of the 16 men's and eight women's teams are nervously watching every training session.
But Kanu's absence is not only a blow for Nigeria. It's also a blow for the Olympics.
The tall 24-year-old striker with the gangly appearance but amazing ball control has been at the center of a tug-of-war between his club and his country since Nigeria announced it wanted him for the Olympics.
Arsenal was already irritated by losing the former Ajax Amsterdam and Inter Milan star for nine matches last season, when his country needed him for national team games.
Without saying they wouldn't released him for the Olympics - a move which would have broken FIFA rules - Arsenal left it to Kanu to make the decision.
He decided to stay in England to help Arsenal get through a busy spell of domestic league and European Champions Cup games. And it could cost him when Nigeria selects its next lineup for World Cup qualifying games.
"I love to play for my fatherland, my country," Kanu said Saturday after Arsenal's 1-1 tie with Bradford in the Premier League. "But I helped us win the Olympic medal four years ago and, because of my commitments with my club, I decided it was not quite right to leave Arsenal for so long and try to achieve something I had already achieved before.
"I spoke to the coach and the vice president and told them my feelings. Now I just hope that when this is all over I can meet up with the Nigerian national team again."
While Kanu will be playing for Arsenal, Kewell will be out of action for another three months.
"Missing out on the Olympics with Australia and the Champions Cup with Leeds has been hard," he said. "But I've had to get used to the idea and concentrate on getting back to peak fitness again.
"I'm told a full recovery is virtually assured. I'm not used to being injured and have never been through anything like this before. I'd like to wish the Australian boys all the very best in their Olympic campaign," Kewell said.
"I only wish I could have been there."
Kewell's Leeds United colleague, Mark Viduka, Brazilian striker Ronaldinho and Japan's Hidetoshi Nakata, who plays in Italy's Serie A for AS Roma, could emerge as the biggest stars of the soccer championship, which ends in a final September 30 in the Olympic stadium.
The first round of qualifying games take place at Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and the Sydney Football Stadium.
The opening games Wdnesday are Australia vs. Italy at the Melbourn Cricket Ground, the United States vs. Czech Republic at Canberra's Bruce Stadium, Cameroon vs. Kuwait at the Brisbane Cricket Ground and Nigeria vs. Honduras at the Hindmash Stadium, Adelaide.
On Thursday, it is Morocco vs. Chile at Melbourne, South Africa vs. Japan at Canberra, Brazil vs. Slovakia in Brisbane and South Korea vs. Spainat Adelaide.