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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SOCCER

Men

July 14, 1996|MIKE PENNER

The Brazil team appears to be the elite unit in the men's competition. For the women, who are competing in the Olympics for the first time, the Americans are the team to beat.

WHAT WE KNOW

Strange but true: Brazil, four-time winner of the World Cup, homeland of Pele, Zico and Romario, has never won an Olympic soccer gold medal. That historical asterisk should be erased come early August, as Brazil brings to Atlanta a squad so loaded, Romario failed to make the cut.

Olympic rosters are limited to players 23 and under, with three "over-age" exemptions. Romario, the most valuable player of the 1994 World Cup, wanted to return to the U.S., but Coach Mario Zagalo used his three wild cards on Romario's strike partner, Bebeto, World Cup defender Aldair and play-making midfielder Rivaldo, whom Zagalo regards as "the best player in Brazil."

Brazil's age-eligible Olympians include Juninho, a star for Middlesbrough in the English Premier League; Ronaldo, who led the Dutch First Division in scoring last season; Caio, who once scored four goals in a World Cup qualifier against Bolivia; and Roberto Carlos, a world-class defender who plays for Inter Milan in the Italian First Division.

Argentina, expected to bring World Cup striker Gabriel Batistuta along as a overage player; Italy, the 1995 European under-21 champion; Spain, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist; and Nigeria, with 1995 African player of the year Emmanuel Amuneke in the midfield, should contend for the silver and the bronze.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

What heinous sin in a previous lifetime U.S. Coach Bruce Arena must have committed.

Drawing Argentina, Portugal and Tunisia as group-play opponents can only be some sort of cosmic retribution for Arena, whose under-manned squad will be fortunate to score a goal, let alone win a game. With Argentina still steaming over its 3-0 loss to the U.S. in last year's Copa America tournament, the Americans' opener could be ugly. Portugal won the 1991 World Youth Cup and five of Tunisia's Olympic starters played on the national team that reached the final of the 1996 African championships.

Arena rankled U.S. Soccer officials by griping about the host country's draw--specifically when he said Americans are so naive about international soccer politics that they don't "even know how to cheat." If they did, the U.S. would have placed itself in the same group with Japan, Saudi Arabia and . . . well, the U.S.

SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW

If the Americans have a strength, it is goalkeeper Kasey Keller, one of Arena's three over-age wild cards. (World Cup defender Alexi Lalas and midfielder Claudio Reyna are the others.) Keller, a top professional keeper in England with First Division Millwall, was a key figure in the U.S. surprising semifinal finish in the '95 Copa America. He will be among the best goalies in this tournament.

SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW

The U.S. hasn't reached the second round in 10 Olympics and hasn't medaled since 1904.

Soccer

Referee:

He is in sole charge of the match and has final say in all decisions on the field of play. He also keeps the official time.

Referee Signals: Penalty kick, Direct free kick, Indirect free kick, Corner kick, Goal kick, Warning or expulsion.

Game Time:

Games consist of 45-minute halves, with time added for issuance of penalties. Ties cab occur in first-round matches, but after that the outcome is decided first by a 30-minute overtime, then by penalty kicks.

Goalkeeper:

The goalkeeper is the only player allowed to use his hands, and than only within the goal area. He is allowed to punt or throw the ball after gaining possession but cannot carry the ball for more than four steps.

Linesmen:

They assist the referee. They are positioned on each sideline and are primarily responsible for making offside calls and signaling when the ball is out of play.

An Olympic First: Linesmen will carry wireless transmitters to help them keep in contact with the referee.

Throw-in:

The ball is returned to play from the point it crosses a sideline by a two-handed overhead throw with both feet on the ground.

Equipment:

Shin guard: Players are required to wear a protective pad inside their socks to prevent serious injury to their shins from tackles or errant kicks.

Cleats: Different types and lengths of studs are used on the soles of the shoes depending on the field condition.

At a Glance

Number of athletes: 288 men (16 teams of 180, 128 women (eight teams of 16).

Changes since Barcelona: Added women's competition.

Qualifications: Women qualify based on results of 1995 World Cup. Men Qualify based on selected tournaments.

Dates: July 20 to Aug.3.

Location: Stadiums in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and semifinals at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.

Sources: Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Times staff, Associated Press, Reuters

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