- Argentina sent Riquelme, Di Maria, Messi and Aguero to the Beijing Olympics
- They beat Nigeria to make it back-to-back golds on 23 August 2008
- “Doing it together with friends like Leo is something I can’t put into words,” said Aguero
Sergio Romero, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago, Juan Roman Riquelme, Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Sergio Aguero: it reads like a who’s who of Argentinians to have made waves across the globe in recent years.
Indeed, apart from Riquelme, all of them were involved in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ Final. Riquelme had retired from international football six years earlier, but not before leading the other nine to the gold medal at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.
“I was so excited because it was my last chance to play at the Olympics,” said Riquelme, who was 30 at the time. “Maybe the final wasn’t that exciting but you still have to go out there and win it. It’s as simple as that. I wore the medal on the plane on the way home and wouldn’t take it off for anyone.”
On 23 August 2008 Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 in front of 89,102 fans at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing to win Olympic gold. The outstanding player in China PR was none other than Messi.
“He can win games by himself,” said Sergio Batista, his coach at the time. It was Messi’s pass in the 58th minute that released Di Maria, whose delicate chip over the goalkeeper was the decisive goal in the final.
“I’ve experienced a lot of wonderful moments that I’ll never forget, but you only do something like that once in your life,” said Messi after the title-winning celebrations. “Winning the gold medal was a dream of mine – and now it’s come true. I’m so happy.”
Temperatures of up to 42 degrees Celsius, combined with extreme humidity, made conditions difficult for the players out on the pitch. “It was terrible, a lot worse than in Athens,” recalled Mascherano, the only player who also featured at the 2004 tournament.
Argentina became the first team to win back-to-back Olympic titles since Uruguay did so in 1964 and ’68, and simultaneously exacted a measure of revenge on Nigeria for defeat in the Atlanta 1996 final. The South Americans also set a new record by going 12 consecutive games unbeaten at the competition.
“My team had a wonderful tournament,” said Batista. Following Argentina’s successes at the FIFA U-20 World Cups of Netherlands 2005 and Canada 2007, Olympic glory represented the third major title for the country’s youth teams in the space of just three years.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Aguero. “Last year I won the U-20 World Cup and now this. Doing it together with friends like Leo is something I can’t put into words.”
The raw numbers may not show it, but Argentina’s road to the title was far from easy. After overcoming Côte d’Ivoire (2-1), Australia (1-0) and Serbia (2-0) in the group stage, they faced a strong Netherlands side in the quarter-finals, where a superb goal from Di Maria in extra-time was needed to progress to the next round. Messi and Co met arch-rivals Brazil in the semi-finals, a match in which Argentina produced their best display of the tournament in a 3-0 victory, with Aguero the standout performer.
In terms of individual players, Romero emerged as the ideal replacement for the injured Oscar Ustari and the custodian, who also won the U-20 World Cup in 2007, did not concede once in 315 minutes of play. Nicolas Pareja and Di Maria also raised eyebrows with their top-level performances. The latter, who hails from Rosario, arrived at the tournament as a substitute but became a pillar of the side and scored decisive goals against both the Netherlands and Nigeria.
With Riquelme as the brains of the team, Messi undisputed as the most dangerous attacking player at the tournament, and Mascherano, who was the first Argentinian player to win two Olympic gold medals, La Albiceleste made history.
“It’s simply unbelievable,” said a slightly hoarse Mascherano. “My daughter wasn’t born when I won the gold medal in Athens, so I’ll enjoy this one with her. Regardless of what happens from now on in my football career, nobody can ever take away the pride I feel in achieving something like this, especially in a sport as difficult as football.
“We won because we played attacking football and we never stopped trying things out. And we beat Brazil in the semi-finals. It was a perfect tournament.”