OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: The point of no return: Ken Jones reports from the Nou Camp on how players are coping with the new rule on back-passes

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The Independent Online
WITH barely 10 minutes played in the opening match of the Olympic football tournament, Francesco Antonioli neatly controlled the ball and wrong-footed a citizen of the United States with a body swerve reminiscent of Sir Stanley Matthews.

Whatever the philistines of English football make of an amendment prohibiting goalkeepers from using their hands to collect back passes, it was all in a day's work for Antonioli. Loosely translated, his thoughts are: 'I must improve my ball control and dribbling.'

This sort of thinking would benefit any number of outfield players in the Premier League, but that is to stray from the issue.

It is whether a controversial statute will make football better to watch or merely lead to chaos and, in England, an ugly extension of long ball theory. 'My players do not feel that it will become a great problem,' said Cesare Maldini, who tutored the Italian team to a

2-1 win over the United States. 'I'm sure that sometimes they will forget and make a mistake, but to go on making it would be very stupid.'

Maldini's words sounded like a get well message to contemporaries in British football who are storing up hate for the perpetrators of a rule that requires footballers to use their brain cells. Think of the opportunities for long throws that will result from panic stricken clearances, and you have the way some British coaches are thinking.

For 18,000 spectators scattered around the Nou Camp on Friday, the new rule was incidental to the proceedings until Antonioli proved that he is more than just a gymnast in a jersey.

Antonioli did fail to keep out the free-kick which brought the United States back into the game, but there could be a future in his initiative. Bruce Grobbelaar should take note. It could extend his career by 10 years.

Elsewhere it was the same old story - un juego muy violento (a violent match) screeched a headline on the morning after Spain defeated Colombia 4-0 in Valencia. Before the flame was lit and the carnival officially commenced, the Olympics were under way in bitterness and strife. Four Colombians and a Spaniard sent off. Why football, with an age limit of 23, should still be in the Games is beyond any sane observer.

In Helsinki 40 years ago, the Hungary of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti won gold with a team that would annihilate England at Wembley and reach the 1954 World Cup final. If the phoney amateurism practised in Eastern Bloc countries made a nonsense of football as an Olympic sport, it was at least a spectacle. Now a proving ground for emerging talent, part of World Cup preparations, it has no relevance.

Olympic football also enables agents to cast their nets. Apart from Nedijelko Zelic, who has already signed a contract with Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, the entire Australian squad have signed with a company represented here by Frank McLintock, the former Arsenal captain and Scottish international, with a view to becoming trailists in England.

A question that occurs to representives of US agencies and newspapers, is why Great Britain are not in evidence. The answer, of course, is that the four home associations are unwilling to run the accompanying risk of losing their identity in the World Cup.

As for the new rule, it worked for Antonioli. It was theatrical but it wasn't staged. The Italian instinctively did his thing in honest competition, and his team won.

(Photograph omitted)