By Mike Talbert
Soccer tried to grab a little Tupelo attention away from the Final Four mania Thursday.
First, the Croatian national soccer team got approval to join the Croatian Olympic delegation for training in Tupelo July 6-16.
Also, Olympic gold medal diver Jennifer Chandler Jones was lending her enthusiasm to Birmingham’s role as a site for the Atlanta Olympics soccer, starting with opening ceremonies and the first U.S. men’s team game July 20.
Tupelo Official Host Organization chairman Bobby King used the occasion of Jones’ meeting with the group to announce that the Croatian soccer team was coming.
Although the Croatian soccer team failed to qualify for the Olympics, King said that the Croatian Olympic committee decided to let the national team come to Tupelo for training.
King said plans are to schedule some exhibition matches with the Croatian team and some of the Olympic teams that will be training for the summer games and to work with soccer programs in the area.
“We are hoping to have some exhibitions in everything from tennis to soccer,” King said. “One of our major points is to let citizens see different Olympic sports.”
The Croatian delegation will leave Tupelo after July 16 for the opening ceremonies of the centennial OIympics July 19.
“It is fabulous that you are going to have the Croatians train here,” Jones said.
The Birmingham soccer opening ceremonies and the first U.S. men’s game are July 20 at Legion Field, which has a permanent natural grass surface installed for the Olympics.
July 20 will be a special day for Jones. It will be the 20th anniversary of her winning the 3-meter diving gold medal in Montreal.
“When that American flag went up in the middle, and I knew it was for me, I was never prouder to be an American,” Jones said.
“I was a 17-year-old kid. It was completely nerve-wracking after the years of work it took to get this far. When I looked out and saw the American flags in the audience, it was the support of the people that gave me the courage to get up there.”
The seven-time national diving champion is urging some of that same support for the soccer in Birmingham, one of five sites with Miami, Orlando, Washington, D.C., and Athens, Ga., where soccer will be played.
“We have a sign in Birmingham that says ‘football capital of the South,'” she said. “Only this time the ball is round and black and white.”
She said that although Birmingham leads the other sites in ticket sales, tickets still remain for all eight days running July 20-28. The U.S. men also will play there July 22, and could play in a July 28 quarterfinal.
The number for tickets is 1-800-240-5700.
The Olympic enthusiasm even led Jones to acquire her two pet white doves, Zeus and Pandora. She was at a school’s Olympic celebration in Centerville, Ala., involving more than 1,000 children. After doves were released, two returned, and they were given to her.