Olympic Games /Olympic Countdown - Football: Boys in blue on the march

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The Independent Online
THE two sides of the modern Olympic movement - rich and professional, poor and amateur - are encapsulated in the opening action of the Games, when the American college boys meet the glamour boys of Italy's professional league at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium today.

Many of the Azzurri are household names; some of the Americans are unknown outside their campuses. The Italians are the European Under-21 champions, a title which earned them qualification for the Olympics. Full of skill, experience and wisely coached by Cesare Maldini, captain of the Milan team who won the European Cup in 1963, Italy are expected to be back at the Nou Camp for the final on 8 August.

Maldini has so much Serie A talent to hand: Demetrio Albertini plays with Maldini's son Paolo at Milan while Sampdoria's Alessandro Orlando and Renato Buso could make them unbeatable.

The US coach, Lothar Osiander, is more than impressed. 'Without a doubt the Italians are the favourites to win the tournament,' Osiander said, 'They are a 'who's who' of Italian soccer in the younger age groups. Hopefully they won't crucify us.'

The Americans have one slight advantage: age. All European entries must be under 21, with the rest under 23. (There are no other restrictions, ending the exploitation of amateurism that had seen the Eastern bloc countries dominate the event for so long).

The senior American side did well against Italy at Italia '90, losing by the narrowest of margins, but the boys in blue should be too hot today. Italy should sweep Group A with the US needing to take points off Poland (unlikely) and Kuwait (possible) to go through. The Poles and Kuwaitis meet at Zaragoza tonight.

Group B also kicks off tonight with a potentially sparkling encounter between Spain and Colombia at Valencia, the third of the four professional grounds being used. Even for Spain's games, none of the matches are likely to be sold out, surprising given that the football tournaments pulled in the biggest crowds at the last three Olympics. Only 30 per cent of the tickets have been sold. The Catalan- Spain split and the age limit can only be partly to blame - it is the off-season after all. There are unlikely to be many for the fourth match today, between Egypt and Qatar, at Sabadell.

The challenge to the Italians is not expected to come from Group B or C, which comprises Sweden (possible semi-finalists courtesy of one Tomas Brolin), Paraguay, Morocco and Korea but from Group D. Denmark will be buoyed by their extraordinary European Championship-winning success in Sweden, while Mexico and Australia will have their moments. The Olyroos, inspired by the excellent Ned Zelic, shocked everyone, if not themselves, by winning a play-off in the Netherlands to qualify.

But the real jewel of this group, and quite possibly the whole tournament, are the Ghanaians. Fast, skilful, occasionally gloriously disorganised, the African have the natural nerve and verve to upset the Italians. They also love Italy; the venue for last year's world under-17 championship success. Ghana boast Nii Lamptey, the Anderlecht tyro, Emmanuel Duah and Mohammed Gargo, both now building their careers at Torino.

There is no Great Britain team - to do so would compromise the power of the four individual home nations - but there is plenty for British coaches to note. First, many of the players are in the shop window, looking for lucrative moves. Second, new rules have been introduced which forbid back-passes kicked towards the keeper. These are now in force.

Who will rule on the pitch is difficult to predict but a fast- moving, attacking final between Ghana and Italy could do more for the game than any amount of rule changes.


16.00 FOOTBALL: Group A: Italy v United States (Barcelona).

18.00 FOOTBALL: Group A: Poland v Kuwait (Zaragoza). Group B: Spain v Colombia (Valencia); Egypt v Qatar (Sabadell).