Europeans looking to regain soccer’s gold

Europe’s football superpowers aim to crush Africa’s dream of a third successive football gold medal and restore the balance of power at the Olympics. Cameroon, in 2000, and Nigeria, in 1996, broke a run of European successes stretching back to the 1936 Games in Berlin but both the Indomitable Lions and Super Eagles failed to qualify for the 16-team finals in Athens. This year, Africa has four representatives in Ghana, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia but it is the likes of Italy, Portugal and hosts Greece, still high on their Euro 2004 triumph, who are expected to be pushing for gold when the final takes place at the Olympic Stadium on August 28. Former World Cup-winning hardman Claudio Gentile coached Italy to the European Under-19 title, the qualifying competition for Athens, with a 3-0 win against Serbia and Montenegro, and he believes his young team has the makings of a gold medal performance. «This is a great team. I’m really delighted because they played some tremendous stuff in the European championship. I’ve always believed in them, and we deserved the triumph,» said Gentile, part of his country’s 1982 World Cup-winning team. The Portuguese will also be among the favourites, especially with Cristiano Ronaldo and new Chelsea signing Tiago as well as striker Helder Postiga taking part. While naturally Ronaldo’s club manager Sir Alex Ferguson was not happy, the 19-year-old made no bones about wishing to defy his Manchester United handler’s wishes. «Playing in the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the career of a football player,» said the winger known as «Mr Twinkletoes,» who starred for Portugal in their run to the Euro 2004 final. «When you cut up a cake too many times there is nothing left. Next season the boy may be exhausted,» was Ferguson’s response. Cameroon and Nigeria’s failure to qualify this time around proved once again how hard it is for champions to mount a successful defense of their title. Only Hungary (Tokyo, 1964, and Mexico, 1968), Uruguay (Paris, 1924, and Amsterdam, 1928) and England (London, 1908. and Stockholm, 1912) have managed to win two successive golds in the 20 football tournaments held. Professional players were only allowed to take part from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles; before that, the amateur competition was the domain of the Eastern Bloc. But times have changed and the Olympics is attracting more and more pro players. Take the Argentineans. Twice World Cup winners, 14-times Copa America champions, but without an Olympic gold to boast of. Looking at the Argentinean squad, though, it would be hard to count against them filling the vacancy column in that medal haul. No less than 12 of their 18-man squad hail from clubs abroad and have irked Ferguson even more by picking his new signing from Paris Saint Germain, Gabriel Heinze, as one of the three players allowed in a squad aged 23 and over. Striker Javier Saviola summed up the mood in the camp among the players, especially those who went down on penalties to Brazil in the Copa America final. «I’m very excited about the possibility of going to the Olympics,» said the 22-year-old Saviola. «It is something I have thought a lot about and I hope to be part of the team. Along with the World Cup, it is the competition that you dream of being involved in.» Ghana, like Argentina, have never stood on the medal podium’s top step at the Olympics despite having plenty of big tournament pedigree – they have been African champions on a record four occasions. «To go to the Olympic Games is the ambition of every sportsperson, so this is something I do not want to miss out on,» said the Black Meteors’ coach Mariano Barreto. Although the gold medal is expected to be heading to one of the old guard, the tournament’s sympathy vote will go to Iraq, who make up Asia’s contingent with Japan and South Korea. The Iraqis, forced to play all of their qualifiers away from Baghdad, secured their unlikely place with a 3-1 win against bitter regional rivals Saudi Arabia in Amman. The result was greeted with gunfire in the Iraqi capital as the team reached their first Olympics since 1988. «Simply stated, this was the biggest moment in Iraqi Olympic history,» said Ahmed Al-Samarrai, the president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. There will also be a new gold medallist in the women’s event with Norway, champions in 2000, having failed to qualify. Ten nations are taking part, with the USA, winners of the inaugural gold in Atlanta in 1996, starting among the favourites but expected to face stiff opposition from China and Brazil. (AFP)

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