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With Top Teams in Same Group, U.S. Will Need to Prove Its Mettle Early

September 10, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES


* OVERVIEW--The Brazilians, silver medalists in 1984 and 1988 and bronze medalists in 1996, are trying to win the one international trophy that has escaped them. To that end, they arrived in Australia before everyone else and set up camp on the Gold Coast, a possibly significant choice of locale.

Olympic rules limit men's teams to players 23 and younger but allow each team to strengthen its squad with up to three "over-age" players. The four European teams--the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovakia and Spain--each have declined to use over-age players. Brazil and South Africa have followed suit.

The 16 teams have been divided into four groups for round-robin play, with the top two finishers advancing to the quarterfinals:

Group A--Chile, Morocco, South Korea, Spain.

Group B--Australia, Honduras, Italy, Nigeria.

Group C--Cameroon, Czech Republic, Kuwait, United States.

Group D--Brazil, Japan, Slovakia, South Africa.

The tournament is being played not only in Sydney but also in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne.

Brazil's national coach, Wanderley Luxemburgo, was strongly criticized at home for failing to include such big-name stars as Romario or Rivaldo.

Assistant coach Jose Candido So Ho Maior defends the policy, saying, "The players here are . . . good enough to win the gold medal." He might be correct.

Nigeria is the defending champion, having beaten Argentina, 3-2, for the title at the Atlanta Games. As usual, the African team is strong but Coach Jo Bonfrere has been involved in a running battle with European clubs for the release of players and is having to make do without several of his first-choice stars.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Spain, Japan. Despite European disdain for Olympic soccer, Spain was quite happy to celebrate its gold medal at Barcelona in 1992. This time it is fielding a purposely weaker squad, using no over-age players and even excluding such national team players as Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, 19, and Barcelona midfielder Gerard, 21. Japan and South Korea, co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup, are eager to make good showings in Australia. The Japanese were awesome in Asian qualifying, outscoring opponents, 66-3, in 12 games.

* BEST STORY--The unwillingness of European clubs to release players for the Olympics, even though they are obliged to do so by FIFA, could turn out to be the soccer controversy of the Games. Cameroon and Nigeria have been especially hard hit, with European clubs successfully pressuring African players to turn down invitations to compete in Australia.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Brad Friedel, 29, UCLA; Frankie Hejduk, 26, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, San Dieguito High and UCLA; Peter Vagenas, 22, St. Francis High and UCLA; Sasha Victorine, 22, UCLA; Danny Califf, 22, Orange, Orange High; Joey DiGiamarino, 23, Corona, Corona High, Cal State Fullerton; Landon Donovan, 18, Redlands, Redlands Valley East High; Brian Dunseth, 23, Upland, Damien High and Cal State Fullerton; John O'Brien, 22, Playa del Rey, Brentwood High.

* KEY DATES--Wednesday, U.S. vs. Czech Republic. Saturday, U.S. vs. Cameroon. Sept. 19, U.S. vs. Kuwait, Italy vs. Nigeria. Sept. 22, quarterfinals. Sept. 26, semifinals. Sept. 29, gold-medal match.


Fast Fact

* The Americans have never advanced beyond the first round, but these will be the first Olympic Games at which they can field an entirely professional starting lineup.

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