No defending champions

U.S. striker Mia Hamm will have a crucial role to play in her team's campaign. U.S. is one of the favourites for the gold in the women's football competition. — Pic. gms / dpa / Carmen Jaspersen-

WHEN the Olympic football tournament kicks of at Athens, two days ahead of the official opening, one thing will be certain: neither the men's, nor the women's gold medallist from Sydney will be able to defend the Olympic title.

WHEN the Olympic football tournament kicks of at Athens, two days ahead of the official opening, one thing will be certain: neither the men's, nor the women's gold medallist from Sydney will be able to defend the Olympic title.

Cameroon, who, in 2000, became only the second African country after Nigeria to lift the men's football crown at the Olympics, were surprisingly knocked out in the qualifying rounds by Mali.

Cameroon, however, were not the only high-profile team not to make it to Athens, as the 1996 winners Nigeria managed only a third place finish in their qualifying group behind Tunisia and Senegal.

Spain, who won the gold medal at home in Barcelona in 1992, were knocked out by Sweden in the play-offs, while Brazil, who surprisingly have never won the Olympic gold medal, lost out to Paraguay, who beat them 1-0.

Cameroon's Pierre Wome (foreground) in action during the Sydney Games. Cameroon, the champion in Sydney, was surprisingly knocked out in the qualifying rounds for the Athens Olympics by Mali. -- Pic. gms / Empics / Tony Marshall-

The only country in the 16-team field that has won a gold medal is Italy, but that was many years ago in 1936 and they looked far from convincing in winning the European Under-21 Championships in Germany in June, where they earned their ticket for Athens alongside Serbia and Montenegro, Portugal and Greece.

In the absence of so many of the teams that normally dominate age-group competitions, Argentina must count as one of the favourites to emerge from the 16-team competition.

Although the three-time World champions have yet to win an Olympic gold medal, they have twice played in the final (the last time being in 1996). Teams expected to challenge the South Americans are all four African representatives (Ghana, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia), as well as South Korea. Italy could also play an important role.

In the women's section the two places reserved for Europe will be taken by Germany and Sweden — leaving the Sydney champions, Norway, out in the cold. The 2003 World championships in the U.S. counted as European qualifying tournament for Athens and as Norway were knocked out in the quarter-finals in the U.S., Germany (world champions) and Sweden (losing finalists) booked their places in Athens.

In the 10-team tournament, the race for the gold medal seems to be between the U.S., Sweden and Germany with possibly China being able to throw a spanner in the works for the `big three'.