VOLOS, Greece -- Don't even think about the silver medal. Argentina will settle for nothing but gold as it prepares to chase its first title and first gold in any sport at the Summer Games in 52 years.
And because Brazil failed to qualify for Athens, this also is a chance for Argentina to claim South American bragging rights. The Brazilians, five time winners of the World Cup, edged Argentina in a penalty shootout to take the Copa America last month.
"We are here to win the gold. It's a must for Argentina,'' said Javier Saviola, one of the leading stars for the team in Greece and a Barcelona striker in his day job.
Roberto Ayala, who plays for Spanish champion Valencia and is one of the world's best defenders, is back to make up for a silver medal finish in 1996, when Argentina blew two leads in the final and lost 3-2 to Nigeria.
With Brazil absent, Italy, Portugal and Euro 2004 champion Greece are the strongest challengers to Marcelo Bielsa's team in a competition restricted to players 23 or under with just three overage exemptions allowed. Mexico, which outplayed the United States 4-0 and kept the Americans from the Games, is another prospect.
The Italians won the European Under-21 title in May, but Portugal has an emerging young side which includes Manchester United's 19-year-old winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy, which last took gold in Berlin in 1936, added AC Milan's Andrea Pirlo. Another standout is Parma striker Alberto Gilardino, who grabbed 23 goals in Serie A last season.
Although Nigeria and Cameroon won the last two Olympic titles, the chance of an African hat-trick appears remote. Tunisia and Morocco appear to have the continent's best chance, but Ghana and Mali are among the outsiders.
Japan and South Korea, hosts of the 2002 World Cup, hope to make an impact, too, as does Australia. Iraq has to play without German coach Bernd Stange, who quit last month amid death threats.
Competition starts Wednesday with Argentina vs. Serbia-Montenegro at Patras and Tunisia-Australia at Iraklion, Crete, in Group A. Greece hosts South Korea in Thessaloniki and Mali meets Mexico in Volos.
The other eight teams start Thursday, with Italy vs. Ghana at Volos and Paraguay-Japan at Thessaloniki in Group B, and Portugal vs. Iraq at Patras and Costa Rica-Morocco at Iraklion in Group D.
Women's competition starts Wednesday with World Cup holder Germany facing China in Patras and 1996 Olympic champion United States playing Greece at Iraklion.
Seven veteran members of the American squad -- including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow and goalkeeper Briana Scurry -- are hoping for a gold medal swan song.
In other women's games, Brazil meets Australia at Thessaloniki and Sweden faces Japan at Volos.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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