OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Volleyball: Mean machine marches on: Close-knit and close-shaven, the American volleyball team are a formidable unit. Guy Hodgson figures out why

YOU NEED hands to play volleyball. Not just to thump the ball over the net, but to join in the orgy of congratulation when anything goes your way. A kill and flesh pumps flesh, a block and palms crash together. You suspect if someone ties their shoe-laces correctly a party breaks out around him.

High fives and low fives, it does not come as a bolt from the blue to discover matches are the best of five sets. A successful Olympic run and your digits must look like raw frankfurters.

No team is more in danger of needing the skin conditioning cream at the moment than the players of the United States who meet Brazil in tonight's semi- finals at the Palau Sant Jordi on Montjuc. America is big and so are the outbreaks of celebration. Hand cream they may need; they have no use for hair cream.

The American basketball squad are going for gold under the nickname the 'dream team' but the volleyball collection are more like every caring mother's idea of an urban nightmare - 12 skinheads, only one of whom looms less than 6ft 5in, each with enough muscle to get respect from a body builder. The look is indisputably more mean-cut than clean-cut.

'We are angry and there is no way we are letting it go unnoticed,' Bob Samuelson, a brooding hulk constructed along juggernaut dimensions, said. 'We just slicked (shaved) everyone down and that was it.' The US team feel wronged and are happily/unhappily letting their opponents suffer for it.

This outbreak of stars and gripes has simmered since their first game. At match point in Japan's favour, Samuelson received a second yellow card caution for over-exuberant protestation and should have been dismissed and a point given to his opponents. The referee, Azerbaijan's Ramis Samedov, was unwilling to finish the match on a technicality, however, and allowed Samuelson to remain, no doubt squirming at such largesse as the Americans retrieved victory.

The next day the International Federation of Volleyball rightly upheld a Japanese protest and set in motion an outbreak of solidarity via the shaver in which every US player removed his hair to match Samuelson, who has a skin condition similar to Britain's Duncan Goodhew and is completely bald. As a gesture and as a fashion accessory it was boneheaded, but only the brave, or the foolish, would tell them.

On Wednesday the Americans took their unsmiling unity on to court against the combination of Latvians, Russians and Ukrainians who are playing together for the last time as a relic of the former Soviet Union. They are billed as the Unified Team, but it was their opponents, made more visually menacing by 10 days of spiky growth, who have been brought together by adversity.

It was a match between the US 1984 and 1988 gold medallists and the winners of the 1991 World Cup and one that the former won 12-15, 15-10, 15-4, 15-11 despite being outplayed in the first set. Stephen Timmons, a veteran of another famous victory over the Soviet Union four years ago, said: 'They were outquicking (sic) and outjumping us. I reminded the guys of Seoul and how they'd come out strong last time. If we kept playing and kept fighting they would come down to earth.'

Timmons's prophecy proved correct, disappointing 70 per cent of the audience who had digested the behaviour of the United States' team and cast them as the villains of the tournament. A historically unnatural alliance between Italians, Spaniards and Brazilians was forged and when the Unified Team edged ahead a parade of national flags followed. Samuelson, inevitably, was the Lee Van Cleef figure coming on to the sort of reception Anfield would afford to Vinnie Jones.

But at the end it was the American flag that was flying proudest and the 15,000-seater hall was ringing to chants of 'USA, USA'. Samuelson, a bit player on the court but a central character off it, crossed to the far end to thank the core of this support. Inevitably, he was shaking hands.

It was an act of mutual congratulation and one that, most opinion suggests, will extend to the final. Palm Sunday?

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