Argentina Triumph Again
The Men’s Olympic Football Tournament has become a showcase for Argentina’s latest under-23 sensations. In 2004, Carlos Tevez put on a personal exhibition, leading Argentina to their very first football gold medal in Greece. This year in China it was Lionel Messi’s turn to dazzle the crowd and his opponents.
Messi and his team-mates did not disappoint as the Argentinians won their second consecutive tournament, culminating in a 1-0 victory over Nigeria in Beijing on 23 August. They made history by becoming only the fourth men’s team to win back-to-back Olympic football titles, joining Great Britain (1908, 1912), Uruguay (1924, 1928) and Hungary (1964, 1968). They controlled the proceedings from start to finish, winning all six games (outscoring their foes 11 -2 on aggregate) — something no team had ever previously accomplished.
“We knew coming in that we may never have this experience again, so we arc lucky chat everything went well and we got what we wanted,” said Messi, who finished with two goals and one assist. “This is a great day for the people of Argentina, and for the development of the game there,” coach Sergio Batista added after the final.
Messi almost did not play. His Spanish club team Barcelona won a court ruling that would have allowed them to withdraw Messi. When push came to shove, however, the Catalan club let the man known as “The Flea” remain in China. It worked out well for Argentina and it allowed Messi to return to Spain a contented man with the motivation to perform brilliantly for his club. “People said a Sot of things that annoyed me before I came to China, everyone knows that,” Messi told FIFA.com. “That’s what makes this medal so special.” Nigeria coach Samson Siasia said Messi was the difference between a gold and a silver. “He terrorises not only our team, but all the teams in Europe,” he said.
Dl MARIA’S GOAL
Compared to some of his earlier performances in the tournament, Messi was not anywhere near his brilliant and lethal best in the final as Nigeria focused on containing him. The superstar therefore reverted to plan B — he passed. His most important one came in the 58lh minute to Angel Di Maria, who bore down on goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzeldn from the
left before chipping him from 18 yards in front of a full house of 89,103 at Beijing’s National Stadium.
Di Maria admitted that he first thought of firing in a shot, but changed his strategy when he saw the keeper come out of his goal. “Luckily, it went in,” he said. Messi recognised that Argentina had not performed up to the usual high standards they had set for themselves. “It was a shame that we didn’t play our best game today,” he said.
While Argentina’s triumph was a histotic one, it will not go down as one of the better finals. Perhaps the 42-degree heat was to blame for that. The game kicked off at the National Stadium at noon. FIFA allowed water breaks in the 30lh and 70th minutes as a precautionary measure, which is virtually unptecedented at international level.
Midfielder Javier Mascherano, a member of the 2004 side, became only the 12th player and the first Argentinian to win two gold medals. “It’s a matter of pride to be the first Argentinian to win two gold medals,” he said. “Tt’s a great feeling. Nobody can take this happiness away from me … Today we made history as a team and that is what matters to me the most.”
In the group stage, Argentina overcame Cote d’lvoire 2-1 and Australia 1-0 before also defeating Serbia 2-0. They needed extra time to beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the quarter-finals to set up what many observers felt was the actual gold-medal match – the semi-final between Argentina and Brazil. Not only did Argentina bury Brazil’s gold-medal hopes, they also stole the beautiful game from their arch-rivalsThe Argentinians played pretty football
and produced their best performance of the tournament – making the Brazilian
game look ugly in comparison – en route to a 3-0 victory. Sergio Aguero, who had failed to score in his three previous Olympic appearances, struck twice within six minutes early in the second half “It was like a final for us,” he said. “Beating Brazil is the best thing.”
Brazil, who have never won a gold medal despite five FIFA World Cup™ triumphs, took home the bronze, defeating Belgium 3-0 in the bronze-medal match. “I feel bad,” said midfielder Lucas. “The hurt is very deep because the Brazilian people were really expecting us to win.” Ronaldinho, hyped by many as the player to watch at the 2006 FIFA World Cup”, continued his fall from grace wirh another ineffective performance in a semi-final that meant so much to his country, The gold-medal triumph meant Argentina have won three major international tournaments in the past three years, including the FIFA U-20 World Cups in 2005 and 2007. When will Argentina next go on a victory lap at an international tournament? The FIFA U-17 and the FIFA U-20 World Cups will take place in 2009, and then the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. Batista believes that seven or eight of his players will play for the full Argentina side in two years, including Di Maria. “I’m certain our victory in Beijing will help the national team on the road to the World Cup,” he said.
Messi went one step further: “We are aiming to win the World Cup.” Winning another Olympic gold medal has certainly provided the ideal platform.