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September 21, 2000
Battle for soccer gold begins on Saturday
Huge attendances, thrilling matches and a glimpse of some precocious young talent highlighted the opening round of the Olympic soccer tournament, which now pauses for breath before Saturday's quarter-finals.
The original 16 teams have been reduced to eight, the most notable absentee being Australia, who lost all three of their opening-round games to finish bottom of Group A.
Although their performance was a major disappointment to home fans, Australia's failure to make the last eight should have no negative impact on the remainder of a competition which has so far produced 77 goals in 24 matches and not one goalless draw.
While gold medal favourites Brazil and defending Olympic champions Nigeria successfully negotiated their way through the group stage, none of the other six quarter-finalists can be ruled out as potential medallists.
Saturday's matches see the United States play Japan in Adelaide, Brazil-Cameroon in Brisbane, Italy-Spain in Sydney and Chile-Nigeria in Melbourne. The competition is wide open and there is all to play for.
Of all the eight coaches whose teams are still in contention, the most relieved must be Brazil's Wanderley Luxemburgo. He is still under huge pressure to win Olympic gold for Brazil for the first time, but at least he was saved the indignity of first-round elimination.
That was a real possibility when Brazil lined up to face Japan in their final Group D match in Brisbane on Wednesday. If the worst had happened and Brazil had failed to qualify, Luxemburgo would either have quit or been fired as soon as he returned home.
But Alex's fifth-minute header sealed a 1-0 win in a superb match with Japan, whose 19-match winning streak finally ended.
Brazil had failed to impress in their opening two matches against Slovakia, which they won 3-1, and South Africa, which they lost 3-1, but they looked a far better team on Wednesday.
"We learned a lot from the defeat to South Africa, and we put a lot of things right in training," said Luxemburgo after beating Japan.
Brazil are delighted to be staying on the Gold Coast and playing their quarter-final in Brisbane against Cameroon, whose 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic on Tuesday guaranteed them second spot in Group C behind the United States.
The Americans, who have done better in soccer here than at any other Olympics since Melbourne in 1956, now face the impressive Japanese in Adelaide.
Japan's dynamic French coach, Philippe Troussier, believes his team is good enough at least to reach the semifinals.
"I had a dream a few weeks ago we would play Italy in the semifinal in Sydney and if we beat the Americans and Italy beat Spain in their game that's what will happen," he said, adding: "Unfortunately the dream ended before I knew the result."
Troussier believes most of the Japanese players here will be in the country's World Cup squad in two years' time, and says they are under immense pressure to do well.
"The gold medal is very important to Japan, and it will be the same pressure in the Asian Championships in Lebanon next month too."
Defending champions Nigeria, who failed to impress in the opening round, face a tough quarter-final against Chile in Melbourne with two key players -- skipper Celestine Babayaro and defender Azubuike Oliseh -- suspended.
Their 18-year-old forward Julius Aghahowa scored a breathtaking goal against Australia, however, and has a chance to build on his growing reputation this coming week.
Chile impressed in their opening three matches and with star player Ivan Zamorano expected to be fit for Saturday after missing Wednesday night's 1-0 defeat to South Korea, Chile have their eyes on a semifinals spot.
Although Honduras failed to make the quarter-finals, their 20-year-old striker David Suazo, who plays for Serie A side Cagliari, top-scored in the first round with four goals and looks set for a great future.
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