FIFA restrictions and fear of burnout means Olympic soccer takes back seat

ATHENS, Greece, AP

The world’s most popular sport at the biggest event on the planet.

It sounds like the ideal combination when soccer and the Olympics meet.

But it doesn’t work that way, at least in the men’s competition. Soccer can’t grab the spotlight away from athletics, swimming and gymnastics, which tend to dominate the games.

The Olympic performances of athletes such as Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Olga Korbut are etched in the minds of sports fans.

But how many recall Nwankwo Kanu’s match-winning goals that earned Nigeria a historic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996?

The lanky star, who played a minor role in Arsenal’s Premier League title triumph last season, scored a last minute equalizer after Nigeria had hit back from 3-1 down to Brazil and then hit the extra time winner to put his team in the final.

The Nigerians twice trailed Argentina in the final but captured the title with a winner in the final minute to become the first African team to win a gold medal.

It was a thrilling finale to a storybook triumph by the Nigerians. But it is buried low in the list of all-time Olympic performances.

“It was the greatest moment of my career,” said Kanu, who also played for Ajax Amsterdam and Inter Milan.

“Not many of the stars I play against can say that they have won an Olympic gold medal.”

The rules of the competition make sure of that.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, doesn’t want the Olympic soccer competition, which starts Wednesday — two days ahead of the rest of the program — to rival its World Cup in any way and insists that teams are restricted to players age 23 or under. The only concession is that the 16 finalists can choose three who are over that threshold, so that some of the stars of the game have made it to Greece.

They include Manchester United’s 19-year-old winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who is on Portugal’s squad, Valencia’s Roberto Ayala and Barcelona’s Javier Saviola, Andrea Pirlo of Italy’s AC Milan and Japan’s Shinji Ono, who plays in the Netherlands for Feyenoord.

Greece, a surprise winner of the European Championship last month, was hoping to field one of the standouts of its Euro 2004 lineup but defender Giourka Seitaridis was pulled from the squad after his transfer from Panathinaikos to Portugal’s FC Porto.

The defender’s new club feared that Seitaridis could get burned out by playing so much soccer in between the domestic seasons when he should be resting.

And that’s another argument FIFA puts forward in its opposition to having all the stars at the Olympics.

“There are too many games and especially at club level,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe.

“I enjoyed Euro 2004 but I was also a little saddened and forced to reflect. Like at the 2002 World Cup many stars were physically and mentally exhausted.

“Zinedine Zidane seemed to be hiding against the Greeks and was not looking for the ball,” Blatter said. “If, on the other hand, the three-time FIFA World Player of the Year had been at the top of his game he would have run after the ball in decisive moments.”

The Greek triumph in Portugal will make sure that the soccer matches will have some sellout games.

The Greeks are in action on the opening day in Thessaloniki against a South Korean team rocked by an injury to Kim Nam-il, one of its three overage players who broke his right leg during a practice game in Paris.

Mali and Mexico, who are in the same group, face each other at Volos.

Tunisia and Australia meet at Iraklion, Crete, on the same day and, in the same group, Argentina meets Serbia-Montenegro at Patras.

On Thursday, it’s Paraguay vs. Japan at Thessaloniki and Ghana vs. Italy at Volos in Group B. And Costa Rica vs. Morocco at Eraklion and Iraq vs. Portugal at Patras in Group D.

In the absence of 2000 gold medalist Norway, which failed to qualify, the women’s competition, which doesn’t have any age restrictions, should work out as a straight battle between world champion Germany and 1996 Olympic champion United States.

The Americans start out against host Greece at Iraklion on Wednesday when the Germans, who are in a different group, face another strong contender, China, at Patras.

Brazil and Australia, who are in the same group as the Americans, face each other at Thessaloniki and Sweden and Japan meet at Volos.

The other two teams in the women’s competition, Mexico and Nigeria, don’t play until Saturday. The Nigerians meet Japan in Athens and Mexico faces China at Patras.