Soccer is the most universally popular sport on the Melbourne agenda, but as an Olympic event it is sick and suffering from estranged love. The reason: professional teams. A year ago 37 countries filed entries for the Olympic soccer competition, and began dropping out almost immediately. There will be only 11 teams at Melbourne—not one team from soccer-mad South America where important matches draw crowds up to 200,000. The Latins are now in love with the superior play of professional teams, and in South America and Europe the big excitement now is not the Olympic test but the world championship, where the best amateurs and professionals meet and no questions asked. Uruguay won the Olympic soccer title in 1924 and 1928 and never sent another team. Italy and Sweden, winners in 1936 and 1948, will not be competing this year. Hungary, 1952 winner, is skipping Melbourne to build for the 1958 world championships. Yugoslavia, 1952 runner-up, is sending its second team (the first string will be busy playing professional sides in Britain).
Six teams—India, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and the U.S.—appear infrequently on the world scene and rank almost as unknowns at Melbourne. European experts point out that the U.S., despite a consistent weakness of attacking haphazardly, has never been as bad as its record, losing most often to a strong contender in the first round. U.S. fortunes depend greatly on veterans such as Harry Keough, who played in the '48 and '52 Games, but hopes, all in all, are not much brighter this year. The U.S. opens against the Yugoslav second stringers, who are equally favored with Britain and Bulgaria for one spot in the finals. Russia should take its strong first-round rival, Germany, and go on to the finals. The Soviets are sending their best, drawing heavily for their players on the great Dynamo and Spartak teams of Moscow. For two years Russia's soccer men have proved better conditioned than any in Europe or South America, capable of going all-out for 90 minutes or attacking savagely for a half and then falling back in tight defense against exhausted opponents. The Russians once stressed a tight passing attack and on several occasions in the past they were caught and upset by a change in their opponent's defense. They now know how to shift for themselves, and, while the whole soccer competition at Melbourne verges on sham, the play of the Russians will be anything but that.