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Olympic Soccer Opens Amid Pageantry, Patriotism in Birmingham

July 20, 1996

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Olympic soccer, Alabama-style, began Saturday with a splash of color and song in a stadium packed with more than 80,000 people, proving college football wasn’t the only game in town, at least for a day.

Fans decked out in red, white and blue encircled Legion Field, their chants of ``USA!″ replacing the usual ``Roll Tide!″

The match between the United States and heavily favored Argentina followed an opening ceremony that featured more than 1,000 children, the Alabama A&M University marching band, a 750-member interdenominational choir and former Miss America Heather Whitestone.

Soccer devotees who follow their teams worldwide sat beside curious Alabamians who were more interested in seeing an Olympic event _ any Olympic event _ than a soccer game.

``We’re not just going to have a good time, we’re going to make a good time!″ said John Stone, a diehard soccer fan and attorney from Beaumont, Texas.

Stone and his wife Patsy met his brother and sister-in-law in Birmingham to see the U.S. team.

``We went to see the ’84 Olympic soccer games in Los Angeles and the World Cup two years ago,″ said Harry Stone, from El Paso, Texas.

The Birmingham Soccer Organizing Committee sold about 290,000 tickets for 11 games, including all 80,100 for the first match. Birmingham sales far outdistanced those in the other preliminary sites of Washington, D.C., Miami and Orlando, Fla.

In a shady downtown park before the game, Spanish-speaking visitors browsed through booths set up by cities and counties from across Alabama.

Saber Baklouti of Tunisia, one of the countries playing in Birmingham, gave away key chains and shirts as he showed off bowls made from olive wood.

``We’re doing this for the games to let people know about Tunisia and our products,″ said Baklouti, a government representative normally based in Washington, D.C.

Alabama Baptists, in turn, gave visitors a taste of Bible Belt evangelism. Hundreds of church members distributed religious tracts comparing sports to faith in God.

``We send missionaries all over the world, and now the world is coming to us,″ said volunteer Cheryl Hurtt.

Six men’s teams and three women’s teams will play at Legion Field through July 28. The first women’s soccer game ever played in the Olympics pits Germany against Japan Sunday afternoon, followed by the Italian and Mexican men’s teams.

More than 200 members of the media from the United States and abroad received credentials to cover the Birmingham games, and an estimated 3,000 people helped stage the event.

Volunteers unfamiliar with international protocol received instructions from Birmingham organizers on how to behave.

``Hold off on the Bubba jokes, please. Watch what you do with your hands. The OK sign in France means you’re a zero; in Japan, please give me coins; in Brazil and Mediterranean countries, an obscene gesture,″ an organizing commitee newsletter said.

The organizing group has a budget of more than $9 million, and the state and local governments will spend nearly as much. The opening ceremony cost about $300,000.

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