Rowing: Chance meeting bonds brothers: Britain's Olympic champions renew rivalry and savour the continental approach to their sport. Hugh Matheson reports from Naples

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'I DON'T care how different the awards are for winning, the feeling is the same for any of us.' Greg Searle and his brother Jonny had just spent a weekend witnessing the high profile rowing enjoys on the continent and racing in the Bay of Naples as the star attraction alongside the Abbagnale brothers, who they beat in the Olympic final of the coxed pairs in Barcelona.

In contrast to the Searles, who can pass untroubled in any street in Britain, the Abbagnales, who come from Castellammare, 30km along the coast, are the most famous Olympic athletes in Italy and local heroes. Their defeat at the hands of two rival brothers, 10 years their junior, was a severe jolt for a nation fed for a decade on a diet of Abbagnale success. The Searles, who are not big in stature by international standards, are described as 'I giganti', and somehow their win is only attributed to their size.

The Abbagnales have been world or Olympic champions since 1981, except on the two occasions when they were beaten by British pairs; the Searles in Barcelona and Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes at the world championships in 1986. But the Abbagnales are unlikely to give up now and return to growing tomatoes and gladioli on the family farm. Since they cannot afford to retire, they will compete in Atlanta, aged 31 and 34, even though the coxed pairs they have dominated has been cut from the Olympics to make way for lightweights.

The popularity of the sporting heroes means that Italians ensure that their athletes are supported either by the Olympic Committee, which is a quango handing out money from a national lottery or by the clubs which are as much social as sporting in the big cities.

The Searle brothers, by contrast, have no private sponsorship and the only government money available is used by the national federation to cover some of the overall team costs. But as they told the throng of press and public, they row because they love it, and were happy to join the crew of the Savoia Club which had invited them to Italy to help celebrate its centenary.

There was also a little homage to the Abbagnales. Because neither pair of brothers speaks the other's language they communicate through the eyes, but after the dethronement in Barcelona, the looks are not as hostile as you would expect. 'They don't smile much, but they seem quite friendly,' Greg said. 'I don't care whether they row for money or love, as long as we can beat them when it matters.'

Rowing enjoys a larger following in Italy than Britain, and is helped by the presence of two television channels devoted entirely to sport. Hardly surprising therefore, that a large number of spectators gathered at the Bay of Naples for the weekend's series of races, which culminated in Sunday's finals for eights, fours veterans and juniors.

The Savoia Club normally trains on the rough seas of the Bay but still sends its best to the national team and the fine boats and smooth waters of Olympic competition. The club is also taken seriously as one of the social centres of Naples. As the country has been turned upside- down by the magistrates in the last six months, the organisers of the centenary were twice obliged to reprint the names of the honorary committee, as many of the great and good have been added to the prison lists.

Each Searle was asked to race with one Abbagnale in a four, or yole, made up with two other club members. But there is a special art to rowing these broad-beamed boats and to the way that the boat is rigged. Jonny Searle was placed in a crew stroked by Giuseppe Abbagnale, who knew precisely what was required and broke clear in the third minute of the 1500m race and came home two lengths ahead. Meanwhile, Greg Searle and Carmine Abbagnale were caught in too small a boat and, although their British cox, Garry Herbert, found the hull responsive to the rudder, it tended to be lifted bodily off course by the sea swell. They struggled in sixth out of seven.

They both chose to race again in the final for eights. The Abbagnales for their home club, CN Stabia, and the Searles for the hosts, Savoia. Of course, the locals won again.

(Photograph omitted)