cloud over games

BEIJING - The Olympic men's football competition, which kicks off tomorrow under a pall of legal action, shapes as a South American extravaganza featuring Argentina and Brazil - but not in the final.

BEIJING - The Olympic men's football competition, which kicks off tomorrow under a pall of legal action, shapes as a South American extravaganza featuring Argentina and Brazil - but not in the final.

As football celebrates 100 years as an Olympic sport, the South American powerhouses are drawn to meet in the semifinals, if both win their group and quarterfinal matches, leaving the other finals berths wide open.

The Netherlands have the strongest European claim ahead of Italy, and the United States also command respect in the 16-nation tournament.

But none holds the same aura as defending champions Argentina and their neighbours Brazil.

Less than 48 hours before their opening matches, however, the South Americans were still in the dark about their lineups.

European clubs Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Schalke are fighting to keep their young stars - Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Diego and Rafinha - out of the Games, which clash with their own season.

But, even if the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decides in favour of the clubs in a decision due today, the South Americans have the ability to draw on a seemingly endless assembly line of young talent.

While the Under-23 age restriction at the Olympics may have weakened many countries, the strength of the Argentinian and Brazilian sides lies with their youthful prodigies.

Even if Messi is ruled out, Argentina's squad includes Boca star Juan Roman Riquelme, Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano from Liverpool.

Confirmed for Brazil are Manchester United's Anderson, Alexandre Pato of AC Milan, Real Madrid defender Marcelo and among the three permitted senior players is Ronaldinho, who recently completed a move from Barcelona to AC Milan.

Argentina, who beat Paraguay 1-0 in the Athens final four years ago, face potential surprise packages Ivory Coast first up in a pool that also includes Serbia, who have performed well at Under-21 level, and Australia.

Brazil - still searching for a first Olympic gold medal to go with their record five World Cups - should easily top their pool in Shenyang where they open against Belgium while China play New Zealand.

The Netherlands and the United States are both in Pool B where the European Under-21 champions start against Nigeria in Tianjin while the USA face Japan.

In Group D, Korea and Cameroon, who play each other in their opening match, both fancy themselves as wildcards capable of upsetting Italy, whose first game is against Honduras.

First round draw, August 7:

Group A (at Shanghai) - Australia v Serbia; Ivory Coast v Argentina;

Group B - (at Tianjin) Japan v USA; Netherlands v Nigeria.

Group C - (at Shenyang) Brazil v Belgium; China v New Zealand; Group D (at Qinhuangdao) - Honduras v Italy; Korea v Cameroon. - Sapa-AFP

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