Olympics '08: Argentine Gold

Argentina repeated as Olympic gold-medalist in men's soccer with a narrow win over Nigeria.

Argentina became the first team in 40 years to repeat as the gold-medalist in Olympic men's soccer when it defeated Nigeria, 1-0, in the 2008 final in Beijing.

The performances were similar in several ways.

Both times Argentina dominated the opposition in the leadup to the gold-medal group but struggled to put away its less-heralded opponent in the final.

In 2004, Argentina outscored its first five opponents, 16-0, yet barely managed to beat Paraguay, 1-0, in the gold-medal game.

In 2008, Argentina's best performance came in the semifinals against Brazil, which it crushed, 3-0, ensuring that its archrival's record of never having won Olympic gold was intact.

Argentina had special motivation in the final at the Bird's Nest. Twelve years ago, the great Argentine team with Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Marcelo Gallardo, Diego Simeone and Roberto Ayala met Nigeria in the final at the packed Sanford Stadium on the campus of the University of Georgia and lost, 3-2, after twice blowing leads.
    
Nigeria's 1996 championship team was dubbed the Dream Team. Jo Bonfrere's team, which included Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwu Kanu, is arguably the most star-studded African team ever assembled.

By contrast, Nigeria's 2008 Olympic team lacked star appeal, though players such as Victor Obinna and Chibuzor Okonkwo certainly dazzled Chinese fans.

Argentina's two gold-medal performances were also notable for the presence of a dominating player.

In 2004 it was Carlos Tevez, the tournament's top scorer with eight goals in six games.

While he didn't match Tevez's output, there was no doubt that Lionel Messi was the star of Argentina's 2008 team.

Against Barcelona's wishes, Messi chose to represent Argentina in China, and his dribbling unhinged opponents throughout the tournament.

Messi was not without a supporting cast. Sergio Arguero and Angel Di Maria, stars on Argentina's 2007 U-20 World Cup championship team, came up with big goals. Arguero scored twice in the semifinals against Brazil. Messi set up Di Maria for the lone goal in the gold-medal game.

Overage players Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Masquerano, both longtime starters in the senior national team's midfield, provided needed experience for Argentina, which struggled to put away Nigeria after scoring an early goal.

The temperature on the field at the Bird's Nest reached 107 degrees for the final, which kicked off at noon.

"It's probably not going to be as spectacular of a game at this time of day," Argentina coach Sergio Batista said. "It was a very hot day for soccer."

Messi didn't mind the conditions.

"We didn't play our best soccer today but this victory is a good one for us," Messi said. "The fact that we have been to the athlete's village and met famous sportsmen, it's all an experience that we will not forget quickly."

(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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