WASHINGTON -- It was considered a soccer venue well before D.C. United set up shop here in April. For decades, RFK Stadium has been the site of international soccer events. The World Cup, for Pele's sake, has been here.
Pardon the Washington Soccer Organizing Committee for 1996 if it isn't shaking in its boots over the prospect of being one of the five venues for Olympic soccer matches.
"This venue had 75 full-time employees for the World Cup two years ago," said Emilio Pozzi, the Executive Vice President of WSOC. "I'd say 20 of those people are involved in the Olympics here. That gives us the confidence to do a good job again. Whatever we did wrong during the World Cup, we're trying to correct."
By no means is the WSOC blase about staging nine first-round games over six consecutive nights at RFK. There are new challenges, the foremost being replicating the Olympic experience for several hundred athletes whose only brush with Atlanta, more than 640 miles away, will come during the accreditation process.
The closest Olympic soccer will get to Atlanta is Athens, where Sanford Stadium will be the site of both the men's and women's semifinals and finals. The U.S. men play their first two games in Birmingham, Ala., and their Olympics could end July 24, when they play Portugal in their last preliminary game at RFK.
On the whole, wouldn't they rather be in Atlanta?
"It would be nice if we could do the [Atlanta] opening ceremonies," said Clint Peay, a U.S. defender who went to Oakland Mills High. "I'm a little peeved about that, but we've got to play the next day in Alabama."
Some teams have already arrived at Mount Vernon College for Women in Northwest D.C., where $300,000 was spent transforming the campus into an Olympic Village. Food service is available 24 hours a day, and entertainment and other services will be provided the Olympians.
"If teams don't advance, this will be their only Olympic experience," Pozzi said. "We've got to make the most of it for them."
As for the soccer itself, FIFA recognizes this tournament as its under-23 world championship, even though teams are allowed three over-age players. Most teams put that asterisk to work in the goal, where Italy's Gianluca Pagliuca, Mexico's Jorge
Campos and the U.S.'s Kasey Keller are accomplished internationals.
Three teams will play all of their first-round games at RFK. Portugal won FIFA youth titles in 1991 and '93. Ghana was the Olympic bronze medalist in 1992. Norway denied the U.S. a second straight women's world title last year and is a co-favorite in the first Olympic soccer competition for women.
The three single games involving Portugal are expected to be sellouts, while tickets are available for the three men/women doubleheaders involving Norway.
"For the doubleheaders, you can see two Olympic soccer games for $20," Pozzi said.
"We've tried to appeal to sports fans, not just soccer fans."
The 16 men's teams will spend the first round in four groups, with the top two in each advancing to the quarterfinals. Among the RFK visitors, the U.S. is in Group A with Argentina, Portugal and Tunisia, while Ghana, Italy, Mexico and South Korea comprise Group C.
The eight-team women's field is split in two groups, and Norway will play Brazil, Germany and Japan.
The sideshows should satisfy all tastes, including the macabre.
The National Soccer Hall of Fame's Olympic Exhibit, on display at a downtown bank, includes the "Death Ball." It's the one that Colombian defender Andres Escobar kicked into his own goal in 1994, during a World Cup loss to the United States. Upon his return home, he was murdered.
RFK soccer schedule
Tomorrow -- Men: Portugal vs. Tunisia, 2
Sunday -- Women: Norway vs. Brazil; Men: Ghana vs. South Korea, 3
Monday -- Men: Argentina vs. Portugal, 7: 30
Tuesday -- Women: Norway vs. Germany; Men: Ghana vs. Italy, 6: 30
Wednesday -- Men: United States vs. Portugal, 7: 30
Thursday -- Women: Norway vs. Japan; Men: Ghana vs. Mexico, 6: 30
Pub Date: 7/19/96