Golden Generation

Author: Thor Haugstad

In the summer of 2008, Argentina took a burgeoning squad to the Beijing Olympics that contained Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero, two hotshots in their early twenties; Juan Román Riquelme, who, at thirty, had returned to Boca Juniors; and Ángel Di María, a slight winger who had moved to Benfica a year earlier. It was a gloomy time for the South Americans. Their last senior trophy had come in 1993, at the Copa América in Venezuela, after which they had not reached a single semi-final of a World Cup. In the 2002 edition, led by Marcelo Bielsa and spearheaded by Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Sebastián Verón, Pablo Aimar and Hernán Crespo, they stumbled in the group stage; four years later, under José Pékerman, they lost to Germany in the quarter-finals. In between, they had suffered two traumatic Copa América exits, in 2004 and 2007. It was not just that they squandered both finals, on penalties in 2004 and through a 3-0 drubbing in 2007. They lost them to Brazil.

Amid the darkness, some rays of light had emerged. Four years earlier, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Argentina came close to playing the perfect tournament. The roster, managed by Bielsa, featured Javier Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze, Fabricio Coloccini, Andrés D’Alessandro, Javier Saviola and the captain, Roberto Ayala. (Ayala was one of three over-age players, the maximum allowed per squad at Olympic football tournaments. The other members must be under twenty-three.) The star was a Boca youngster named Carlos Tévez, who scored eight times, including the winner in the final against Paraguay. Argentina won all six matches, scoring seventeen goals, and becoming the first side to win a FIFA competition without conceding. It was their first Olympic gold in football, avenging final defeats against Uruguay, in 1928, and Nigeria, in 1996. The victory predetermined certain expectations. When the 2008 squad landed in China, only gold would satisfy.

Sixteen teams would participate at the Games. The four European sides—England, Serbia, Belgium and the Netherlands—had qualified by reaching the semi-finals of the 2007 European U-21 Championship. (The Dutch beat Serbia 4-1 in the final.) Nine teams qualified through regional preliminary tournaments: Honduras and the United States (CONCACAF); Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria (Africa); Australia, Japan and South Korea (Asia); New Zealand (Oceania). China were dealt a spot as hosts. Argentina and Brazil booked their tickets as the top two of the 2007 South American Youth Championship, hosted in Paraguay. It took place in January, so by the time the Olympics kicked off, their places had been confirmed for eighteen months.

The tournament had been an Argentine cliff-hanger. Its timing meant hardly any Europe-based players travelled, leaving the squad vastly weaker than the Olympic version. Notable members included Di María, then a skinny midfielder with Rosario Central; Éver Banega, a tenacious playmaker at Boca; Claudio Yacob, a defensive midfielder with Racing Club; and Franco Di Santo, a lanky striker at Audax Italiano, in Chile. Familiar faces also graced their rivals’ squads. Brazil called up Alexandre Pato, the Internacional wunderkind soon to be signed by AC Milan, plus Luiz Adriano, Fernando and Willian. Chile had the second-highest scorer of the tournament in Colo-Colo midfielder Arturo Vidal. Uruguay had the top scorer, Edinson Cavani.

The cup format was bisected. There were two initial groups consisting of five teams each, from which the top three would progress to a final six-team group. From there, the top two would reach China. In the first phase, Argentina scraped into third despite winning one of their first four matches. They owed it to Colombia, who overturned a 0-1 deficit against Venezuela in the final round. In the second phase, with one round left, Brazil were on nine points, Uruguay on seven, Argentina on six. The Brazilians met Colombia while Argentina faced Uruguay, needing to win. Argentina’s form was ominous: they entered the finale having scored once in their last three encounters. On the day, Brazil sank the Colombians 2-0 to take the title, while in the duel between Argentina and Uruguay, Lautaro Acosta, the Argentina forward, headed in the winner that earned La Albiceleste qualification. The victory was very much a marginal one. When Acosta scored, the clock stood at ninety-two minutes.

With passage sealed, Argentina started to ready the squad. The final list would include fifteen players aged under twenty-three and three over-age players. The coach would be Sergio Batista. El Checho had been a bearded defensive midfielder in the Argentina sides that won the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and finished runners-up in 1990 in Italy. His two assistants were also in the 1986 squad: José Luis Brown, a central defender, scored the opener in the 3-2 final win against West Germany, while Héctor Enrique, a midfielder, assisted Diego Maradona’s solo goal against England in the quarter-finals. (For which he would be wise not to take too much credit.) Batista’s managerial record was modest. A couple of short-lived spells with domestic clubs had recently paved way for an appointment in Argentina’s youth set-up. After being handed the Olympic gig, he said: “Four months ago, if somebody had said that I’d get this opportunity, I wouldn’t have believed them. Now’s the moment to show that I’m up to the job.”

The talent pool available to Batista was unparalleled. A core of top-class youngsters had risen through the ranks in preceding years. They were accustomed to trophies. In 2005 and 2007, Argentina had won the U-20 World Cup with several of the players that would travel to China. In 2005, under Francisco Ferraro, they beat Nigeria in the final, on Dutch soil, with a squad that included Óscar Ustari, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Fernando Gago, Messi and Agüero. (Messi and Agüero were the only members born later than 1986.) Two years later, under Hugo Tocalli, they beat the Czech Republic in the final showpiece, in Canada, with players such as Sergio Romero, Federico Fazio, Banega, Di María and Acosta.

The U-20 World Cups had been dominated by either one of Argentina’s two brightest stars. In 2005, an 18-year-old Messi became the top scorer with six goals; he was also declared the player of the tournament, ahead of Fernando Llorente. When it became clear that Messi would miss the 2007 edition, the scene was set for Agüero. The Atlético Madrid forward hit six goals too, and became the top scorer, the player of the tournament, and the scorer of the goal of the tournament. The winning strike was remarkable. Facing Poland, in the round of 16, Agüero received a low ball just inside the area, tightly marked, with his back towards goal. On the bounce, he looped it over the defender with his right foot before, on the other side, striking it first time with his left, hammering it into the far bottom corner.

In the six months prior to the Olympics, Argentina shred nerves over whether Messi and Agüero would participate. The call-up process was not straightforward. The tournament would last from the seventh to the twenty-third of August, interfering with preparations and season openings for European clubs. To FIFA’s annoyance, no statute existed that demanded the players be released for Olympic duty. After Argentina qualified, in 2007, Messi had expressed an early interest. “From now on, those of us who are the right age to go to China can really start looking forward to taking part,” he said. “I’d just joined the national team youth set-up when Argentina won the gold medal in Athens, so it would be incredible to be there defending the title next year.”

By January 2008, Batista had confirmed two of his senior players. Riquelme and Mascherano would join the party, the latter getting a chance to become the first footballer to win two Olympic gold medals. The third had not been selected. Batista said: “It’s difficult to confirm now because there are still a few months left, but if the tournament were to start today, I’d take Román, Mascherano and [Martín] Demichelis as the over-age players. I just love how Riquelme plays, Mascherano provides the necessary balance in midfield and Martín would add experience to our backline.”

Complications over player call-ups soon began. When Batista named a La Liga contingent for a friendly to be played in February, he picked Banega, Gago, Gonzalo Higuaín, Agüero, Zabaleta and Messi. But Messi did not go. Barcelona withheld him, citing fear over injuries. A feud started between the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and the club that would last until August. If Messi travelled to China, Barça would miss him for two qualifying ties in the Champions League, so they vetoed his involvement. The AFA did have one advantage: Messi wanted to go. “I am going to the Olympic Games whatever may happen,” he said in June. “I do not know how we can resolve things, but there is no doubt that I will be there.”

By the summer of 2008, Messi had long risen to stardom. He had scored for Argentina at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and had completed four seasons with Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard. He had converted the Maradona-esque ‘Hand of God’ goal against Espanyol, and that solo run against Getafe. Maradona had declared him his successor. Veron agreed, saying: “I see Maradona every time he grabs the ball and accelerates.” In 2007, Messi had finished third for the Ballon d’Or; in 2008, he came second. Though unpolished, he was unbelievably quick at the time, notably more so than now. Aged 21, he had nothing to do with youth football. For that he was much too good.

In late July, Schalke 04, Werder Bremen and Barcelona filed a complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport seeking legal confirmation over their powers to block call-ups. They got it. As late as the sixth of August, the day before the opening game, the Court ruled in favour of the trio. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, said in a statement: “FIFA is surprised and disappointed by this decision, but we respect it. Nevertheless, I appeal to the clubs: let your players take part in the Olympic Games. It would be an act of solidarity in perfect harmony with the Olympic spirit. It would be wonderful for the players, for the fans and for the game itself.”

With the announcement made so close to the tournament, the Argentine party had long travelled to China. Messi was included: there was never a chance of the AFA leaving him in Spain in case the ruling turned out negative. Barcelona could now demand his return, though Batista issued the argument that Messi wanted to play. He had no intentions of letting him go. “He will be on the start list for tomorrow from the beginning, and I am sure he can be here with us for the rest of the competition,” the coach said.

Reportedly, it was Pep Guardiola, the new Barça coach, who eventually persuaded the club board to let Messi play. Potentially contributory was the fact Guardiola had won gold himself, at the 1992 Olympics, in a Spain team that also featured Luis Enrique. To Argentina’s relief, the issue was resolved. Messi stayed in China.

If Argentina’s rivals had been worried earlier, they certainly were now. Messi’s inclusion completed what was already the strongest squad of the tournament. The rest of the list had long been confirmed. Bayern München had blocked the availability of Demichelis, leaving Batista to call up Internazionale defender Nicolás Burdisso. When Burdisso got injured, the choice fell on Nicolás Pareja, of Belgian side Anderlecht.

The full squad:

Óscar Ustari (aged 22)
Sergio Romero (aged 21)

Ezequiel Garay (aged 21)
Luciano Fabián Monzón (aged 21)
Pablo Zabaleta (aged 23)
Federico Fazio (aged 21)
Nicolás Pareja (aged 24)

Fernando Gago (aged 22)
José Sosa (aged 23)
Éver Banega (aged 20)
Juan Román Riquelme (aged 30)
Ángel Di María (aged 20)
Javier Mascherano (aged 24)

Ezequiel Lavezzi (aged 23)
Lautaro Acosta (aged 20)
Lionel Messi (aged 21)
Sergio Agüero (aged 20)
Diego Buonanotte (aged 20)

Several squad members had already been snapped up by Spanish clubs. Ustari, the first-choice goalkeeper, was with Getafe; Sergio Romero, his understudy, was playing for AZ in the Netherlands under Louis van Gaal. Zabaleta was contracted to Espanyol, and would sign for Manchester City shortly after the tournament. Garay had recently been sold to Real Madrid, but would return to Racing Santander on loan the next season. Pareja would soon join Espanyol. Fazio was at Sevilla. The only defender not connected to Spain was Luciano Fabián Monzón, a youngster at Boca.

Three of the midfielders had also been at Boca. Gago had been signed by Real Madrid, while Banega had gone to Valencia. Riquelme had returned to the Bombonera on a permanent contract, having initially joined on loan from Villarreal. Elsewhere in midfield were José Sosa, a youngster with Bayern, and Mascherano, of Liverpool.

In attack, the backups to Messi and Agüero were promising. Ezequiel Lavezzi had been with Napoli for a year, while Acosta had recently signed for Sevilla after impressing with Lanús, in Argentina. In the mix was Diego Buonanotte, the tricky River Plate playmaker. Also in contention was a midfielder whose standing was, by then, lower than it came to be. After the tournament, a story on FIFA’s official website would note that “Argentina’s squad list for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament featured the usual welter of established stars and some lesser-known names, among them Angel Di María.”

Earlier, in April, the groups had been drawn. Argentina were paired with Ivory Coast, Australia and Serbia. It evoked memories of the 2006 World Cup pool, where Argentina met both Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro. After such draws, coaches are traditionally keen to display knowledge and a sense of preparation, but Batista admitted he knew little of how their rivals would play. Neither did he know who they would bring. “I always look at my own team first, and I know that if we are OK, we’ll have no problems,” he said. “They should be worried, because they will face one of the favourites.”

Like in 2006, Argentina would face the Ivorians in their opener. Despite an unfortunate dress rehearsal—Argentina’s last warm-up game, against Japan, had been called off due to heavy rain and lightening—Batista’s men were clear favourites, lining up with Ustari; Zabaleta, Garay, Pareja, Monzón; Mascherano, Gago; Lavezzi, Riquelme; Messi, Agüero. The pre-match expectations were best summarised by Mascherano. “The biggest threat to Argentina will be Argentina itself,” he said.

Once the game had kicked off, Riquelme wasted little time in showcasing his lauded vision. He threaded a perfect pass through to Messi, who, clear on goal, finished calmly. It was the combination many had discussed beforehand: the creativity of Riquelme; the live-wire movement of Messi and Agüero. Later, a towering header by Sekou Cissé made it 1-1, a result that stood until the eighty-fifth minute. In the eighty-sixth, Messi caught the African defence unaware with a quick free-kick on the edge of the box. He played a one-two and let fly. It was saved, but the rebound fell to Acosta, an eightieth-minute substitute, who bundled in the winner.

It was a huge relief for Argentina. The game had been close and Batista’s men, for all their talent, had underwhelmed. Like in the qualifiers, Acosta had proved the saviour. “Do I only score important goals?,” he said. “God is great, and I’ve been fortunate to have him on my side more than once.”

If Batista knew his side needed improvement, drastic alterations to the line-up was not perceived as a solution. He made one change for the second game, against Australia: Pareja replaced Fazio. The Aussies were underdogs and defended accordingly; they sat deep and relied on spirit. It was raining heavily. Argentina’s display was more convincing than for the Ivorian drama, but it was still far off full capacity. In the seventy-sixth minute, quick interplay between Riquelme and Messi set up Di María, who delivered a first-time cross for Lavezzi to convert. It proved enough. Rather than reflecting on the champagne football many had expected, the Argentina camp were made to grab the win and trudge home. “We didn’t play as well as we’d hoped, which is why we struggled to win the game,” said Batista. “But we’ve qualified now.”

Joy and moodiness spread in the two camps. For Australia, the result and the performance had been nothing to hide from, though coach Graham Arnold wielded sarcasm when asked whether the drizzle had hampered his side’s chances. “If it hadn’t rained today, we would have won for sure,” he quipped to the press. For Lavezzi, the goal had stirred special emotions. The match had been played on what was Children’s Day back in Argentina, and, prior to kick-off, his three-year-old son, Tomas, had asked him over the phone: “Can you score a goal for me?”

With Argentina qualified, the Serbia encounter became a formality. Batista reintroduced Pareja and kept Fazio, handing Garay a rest. Romero replaced Ustari, while Monzón, Riquelme and Messi were given the day off. In came Sosa, Banega and Buonanotte. Argentina took command early. Di María was felled inside the area, with Lavezzi scoring the penalty. When Argentina were awarded a second spot kick, Di María decided to step up himself. It was not a good idea. He missed, only for the referee to order that it be retaken. Handed a second chance, Di María misfired again. The win was not wrapped up until six minutes before time, when Buonanotte sent a free-kick sailing into the net.

While Argentina had galumphed through their group, much had happened in the other three. Brazil, who had moved Dunga down from his senior post to manage the project, were desperate for gold. The Olympics was the only football tournament they had competed in without winning, and what had previously been viewed as a competitive irrelevance had by now turned into an annoyance. The squad reflected such sentiments. It included Hernanes, Marcelo, Diego, Pato, Ramires and Thiago Silva. (Dunga seemed not to favour the latter two, benching them for the first matches.) Brazil had also wanted Kaká as an over-age player, but Milan had blocked the move, so the seniors were Ronaldinho, Anderson and Lucas Leiva. Kaká was not missed at first. After the group phase, the Brazilians stood with three wins and a nine-zero goal difference.

Also in the quarter-finals were Belgium, whose line-up featured Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin Mirallas and Moussa Dembélé. They had been unlucky to finish second. In the group’s decisive match, Brazil came out 1-0 winners after Kompany and Fellaini had been sent off. The Belgians had been superb prior to Kompany’s dismissal, and the winner, scored by Hernanes, came in the seventy-ninth minute.

The remainder of the big-hitters fell short of such kind of stardust. The profiles of Italy, who had topped their group without conceding, were Riccardo Montolivo, Sebastian Giovinco and Guiseppe Rossi. Behind them finished Cameroon, while Ivory Coast were runners-up in Argentina’s group. The final pool had been won by Nigeria, who had Victor Obinna, Peter Odemwingie, Chinedu Obasi and Victor Anichebe. Behind them came the Netherlands, something Batista knew all too well. They would meet Argentina.

The Dutch squad was not particularly intimidating. Roy Makaay was among the over-age players, but most names on the roster had not yet reached the households. Nor would they. The more famous participants were Jonathan de Guzmán, Urby Emanuelson, Ryan Babel, Hedwiges Maduro and Royston Drenthe. They had drawn 0-0 with Nigeria, rescued a 2-2 against the United States three minutes into stoppage time, and edged past Japan thanks to a second-half penalty. Hardly results that would erode Batista’s assurance.

Batista recalled his strongest line-up: Ustari returned, as did Garay, Monzón and Pareja to complete the back line with Zabaleta. Back in action were Gago, Mascherano, Di María and Riquelme; and Messi and Agüero. Argentina started the game at frenetic pace. Messi rose to the occasion, dribbling round goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen to score in the fourteenth minute. The Dutch replied before the break, Otman Bakkal converting a simple finish after pouncing on a shot blocked by Mascherano. The game went into extra time. After one hundred and five minutes, Messi resurfaced, finding Di María with a pass for the winning goal. “We were under the cosh for the opening fifteen minutes but after that we found our feet,” Netherlands coach Foppe de Haan said in the aftermath. “Messi’s contribution was extraordinary.”

In the other quarter-finals, Belgium saw off Italy by 3-2, while Nigeria sank Ivory Coast 2-0. Argentina’s next opponent had also been confirmed. Brazil beat Cameroon 2-0.

Only three days separated the quarter-finals and the semi-finals, but it was ample time for a solid pre-match build-up. Argentina had much to revenge. The pain of the Copa América defeats in 2004 and 2007 still lingered. Since the last final, the historical clash had found place just once: a 0-0 draw in Belo Horizonte, in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. The match in China came at a difficult time for Brazil, and particularly Dunga: while the Copa win in 2007 had been a personal triumph, his senior side had made a laborious start to the World Cup qualifiers. In a country prided on samba football and rhythmic artistry, Dunga had also drawn criticism for his pragmatic style: Brazil prioritised solidity and defensive discipline, utilising three ball-winners. Ugly wins were controversial. Ugly losses were condemned.

Prior to the match, Batista said: “There’s a lot of mutual respect, and I’m sure we both would have preferred to avoid each other until the final. Let me make something clear, though: Brazil aren’t any better than Argentina, even if they have won the last few meetings. They’ve just been having a good run, like we did back in the 90s.”

Was he confident of victory? “We’re going to beat them,” he said. “I’m sure of that.”

Batista chose the same eleven that had beaten the Netherlands, with one exception. In the quarter-finals, Ustari had been forced off because of injury, so Romero replaced him. Dunga sent out his side in a Christmas tree formation. The line-up was Renan; Rafinha, Breno, Alex Silva, Marcelo; Hernanes, Lucas, Anderson; Diego, Ronaldinho; Rafael Sóbis.

The encounter started cautiously. On eleven minutes, Rafinha cut dangerously in from the right, but poked his shot wide. A minute later, a quick free-kick found Agüero, who missed the target from nine yards. Few other chances came in the first half, but, with so much talent on display, a show of finesse was inevitable. Ronaldinho earned cheers with slick dribbles and trickery. Messi ran circles round the defenders. At one point, Riquelme found Messi on the left with a reverse pass so well disguised that Lucas, trying to shift his feet, fell on his back.

The opener came just after the break, when Argentina tightened a grip. Again, Di María proved decisive. The winger cannoned in a cross that Agüerorushing into the area, converted with his stomach. ”To tell you the truth,” Di María would later say, “it was meant to be a shot, not a cross. Luckily, I didn’t catch it right, and El Kun was able to steer it into the net.”

Six minutes on, Messi dribbled across the defence and found Garay, who smashed a low cross across goal. Agüero tapped it in. The Argentine fans erupted and, up in the VIP box, Maradona could be seen punching the air. Brazil had chances to come back. In between the two goals, Rafael Sóbis had hit the lower left woodwork and, after Agüero’s second, Ronaldinho smacked a re-taken free-kick into the same post. A Brazilian goal had also been disallowed. Down the other end, Messi played in Agüero, who was clipped down by Breno inside the area. Penalty. Riquelme converted and Argentina led 3-0. The scoreline proved too much for the Brazilians, who had Lucas and Thiago Neves sent off inside the final ten minutes. Both offences were for fouls on Mascherano, who held his customary defensive midfield position. “Brazil got a bit nervy, that’s all,” Mascherano said. “It’s not like I was the most skilful player out there on the pitch.”

The result was a huge triumph for Batista and Argentina. Until now, the performances had never reached the heights of those in 2004. Here, they had delivered. “You don’t normally get results like this when Argentina face Brazil,” Batista remarked. Riquelme said: “This was a very special game for us. People said a lot of things about us, and we owed ourselves a performance like this, especially after last year’s Copa América final.” He added: “I saw Maradona in the VIP area, and we have a wonderful relationship with him. To see him very happy makes me very happy too. Now, I hope to take the gold medal to our country like we promised.”

Argentina would now meet Nigeria, after the Africans had crushed Belgium 4-1 in the other semi-final, in Shanghai. It would be a re-match of the 1996 final. Back then, in Atlanta, Nigeria grabbed a 3-2 victory in what became an Olympic footballing classic, in front of 86,117 attendees. The winning goal came in the last minute through Emmanuel Amuneke. Both squads contained famous names. Nigeria had Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West, Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh. Argentina, coached by Daniel Passarella, had Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Claudio López, Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Diego Simeone. Even the referee enjoyed a high profile: Pierluigi Collina carried the whistle.

The current Nigeria coach, Samson Siasia, also had scores to settle. As a forward, he had scored when Nigeria lost 2-1 to Argentina in the group stage of the 1994 World Cup. In 2005, he coached Nigeria at the U-20 World Cup when Argentina resurfaced in the final. His side lost 2-1 once more. The damage was done by two penalties converted by Messi, after he and Agüero had been fouled. “To defend against Lionel Messi is the biggest thing we have to do,” he said. “We just have to make sure we stay close to him, and we don’t give him the chances like we did the last time in the U-20 World Cup.”

The two finalists relied on contrasting qualities. If Argentina’s individual brilliance was obvious, Nigeria were the underdogs fortified by collective organisation. “I’ve never known team spirit like what we have in this team,” said Siasia. “We have this bond together that is something special. We’ve been through hell together, so to speak. A lot of these boys come from very tough pasts and very difficult circumstances, and here we are playing for a gold medal at the Olympics. We’ve suffered hardship individually and as a team, and we lost a few players along the way, but we are stronger for it.” For his part, Batista’s confidence remained unflappable. Prior to the final, he was reported to have said: “With these players I’d be brave enough to fight in Iraq.”

The Argentine line-up was as expected. Batista named Romero; Zabaleta, Garay, Pareja, Monzón; Gago, Mascherano, Di María; Riquelme; Messi, Agüero. The circumstances in China were difficult. The match would be played in the Bird’s Nest, in Beijing, and the organisers had moved the kick-off forward to noon to clear the stadium’s afternoon schedule. The teams were exposed to temperatures of up to 42˚C. Concerns soon spread about the health of the players, and two water breaks were called during the match. According to reports, FIFA doubled the number of medical staff for the game, and dispatched their chief medical officer, Jirí Dvorák, to supervise. “The players can’t breathe and it’s difficult to run,” complained Maradona, in attendance. “The heat is unbearable.”

The final was not a classic. The opener came in the fifty-eighth minute. Despite Siasia’s vows, Messi broke free and found Di María, who chipped the goalkeeper. Nigeria had no reply. “I thought about hitting it hard, but as he’d closed the space down, I just flicked my foot under the ball,” said Di María afterwards. “It came off my toe and luckily it went in. It was a nice finish, wasn’t it?”

Argentina had done it. A second consecutive gold medal; the 1996 final reversed. “Messi terrorises not only our team, but all teams in Europe,” said Siasia. “He didn’t score but he created a lot of their chances. That is why we have the silver and they have the gold.” Inside Argentine minds, thoughts quickly went back to the pre-tournament struggle between Barcelona and the AFA. Without Messi, the story could have been different. “People said a lot of things that annoyed me before I came to China, everyone knows that,” said Messi. “That’s what makes this medal so special.”

The celebrations could start. The players rejoiced, as did the staff, and Maradona. “It’s very special to win this title, especially with Diego being here,” said Agüero. “He congratulated me and said I’d had a great tournament. You can’t ask for any more than that.” Riquelme said: “I’ll be wearing the medal on the plane home. I won’t be taking it off for anyone.” For Mascherano, it was another Olympic souvenir added to his collection. “We won because we played attacking football, and we never stopped trying things,” he said. “And we beat Brazil in the semi-finals. It was the perfect tournament.”

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