Footballers left out on a limb
Thursday, 14 August 2008

BEIJING, Aug 12 ( - The imposing Bird's Nest stadium is nothing more than a television image for most of the Olympic footballers, who are isolated in venues hundreds of kilometres from the heart of the action.

Most teams had to miss the opening ceremony and only a few will have the unique experience of staying in the Olympic village. For some, it feels like just another age-restricted football tournament.

The only sport which actively prevents its top athletes from participating in China, football is in some ways the ugly duckling of the Games.

To avoid rivalling the sport's own World Cup, governing body FIFA has imposed an age limit of 23 with three overage players allowed per team.

Most matches have been scattered around four other venues — Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, Shenyang and Shanghai.

Of the handful which are being played in Beijing, only the final will be at the Bird's Nest—and the decision to go for a midday kick off in the notoriously stifling Beijing summer clearly suggests that organisers' priorities lie elsewhere.

"We're not really living the atmosphere of the Olympics," said Italy midfielder Riccardo Montolivo whose team have been based in Qinhuangdao, a city of towering blocks and belching chimneys.

Serbia, based in distant Shanghai, were among the many teams who missed the opening ceremony.

"Of course, we are sorry that we couldn't be there and had to watch on the television but that was our destiny," said defender Gojko Kacar.

Defending champions Argentina played their first two games in Shanghai before moving to Beijing, and the Olympic village, for their final group match.

Forward Sergio Aguero said they noticed the difference immediately.

"This is very beautiful," he said.

"When we were in Shanghai, it was like we were playing in an under-20 tournament or competition like that because there was only football.

"But these are the real Olympics."

The United States were one of the few sides to make the opening ceremony and loved every minute of it.

"We took our lap and pretty much had the world's attention for five or six minutes, which was pretty special," said goalkeeper Chris Seitz.

"It was one of the greatest moments I've ever had."

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