THE DAY REPLAYED - There had to be a twist in the tale. In the footballing amphitheatres of Greece, Ghana and Morocco from Africa and Portugal of Europe flexed their muscles. But after more late drama in Groups B and D, as the curtain fell on the first Episode of the Olympic Football Tournament the heroes of the night were Costa Rica and Paraguay who downed the giants of Portugal 4-2 and Italy 1-0 to qualify. In the kind of suspense befitting the very best odysseys, Japan's 1-0 victory over Ghana allowed the Azzurri goliath to fight another day, while Morocco's 2-1 defeat of the already qualified Iraq was not courageous enough to make the last eight.
Costa Rica entered the final day without a goal to their name in Group D. Against talented Europeans Portugal they needed all of their four to snatch a last-gasp spot in the next round on the number of goals scored. The star of the show was Pablo Brenes. While Morocco, leading 2-1 in Patras, were passing the ball among themselves with the clock ticking down, the Ticos No. 9 swooped to conquer. So dramatically timed was his 91st-minute effort that the buzzing of mobiles on the Moroccan bench coincided, rather tragically, with the final whistle.
After an uneventful first half an Iraq team bearing little comparison - in personnel and play - to the side that had slain Portugal and Costa Rica had taken the lead just after the hour mark through Sadir Salih before two goals in eight minutes from Bouabid Bouden and Salaheddine Aqqal nudged the North Africans to a bitter victory.
Their disappointment was only equalled by the shame of Portugal, who ended the match with nine players after the sending off of Joao Paulo, a second yellow, and sorry substitute Hugo Viana, a straight red. Romao Pratas' coveted stars appeared to have the match and qualification in their pocket. Beginning the game two points ahead of both Morocco and Costa Rica, they took the lead just before the half-hour through a Hugo Almeida header and appeared to be coasting.
|Paraguayan midfielder Edgar Barreto dedicates the victory to the public at the end of the Group B first round match against Italy at Karaiskaki stadium 18 August 2004 for the Athens 2004 Olympics Games. Paraguay defeat Italy 1-0.|
Nothing was certain in Group B either going into the final fixtures. Italy and Ghana had four points with Paraguay on three and Japan nil. But one man, Guaranies' coach Carlos Jara, who had seen a historic last-eight Olympic spot snatched from his grasp in the previous match thanks to two late Ghanaian goals, was sure of one thing - nothing less than a win against Italy would do.
His bravery, playing Fredy Bareiro and Pablo Gimenez alongside the driving presence of Jose Cardozo in an attacking trident, sat well up above. And when Daniele de Rossi inexplicably missed from inside the six-yard box after Alberto Gilardino had struck the woodwork early on, the 24,000 fans inside the majestic Karaiskaki stadium sensed the cards had been dealt.
Bareiro, who opened his Olympic account as substitute in the previous match, repaid his coach's trust on 14 minutes heading in the impressive Aureliano Torres' centre. The Azzurri huffed and puffed but with Andrea Pirlo looking jaded after a punishing summer, they could not blow down Paraguay's yellow defences. So composed was captain Carlos Gamarra, who plies his trade in the same city as Pirlo, Milan, he even had time to embrace then escort an invading fan, wearing an Iraq shirt, to the touchline.
They may have gone down but Claudio Gentile's much-hyped side will not only fly Italy's flag in the quarters against Mali but Europe's as well. Ghana, who had been hoping to follow in the footsteps of Nigeria and Cameroon, bowed out of the competition following a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Japan, leaving Mali as the only African team in the last eight.
Yoshito Okubo's 37th minute strike, the promising forward's second of the championship, saved some honour for Masakuni Yamamoto's young side. Kwadwo Poku, whose introduction versus Paraguay had turned the game in the Black Stars' favour, almost did it again but his shot three minutes from time was smartly saved.
So many gone on a night of shocks but much more to come as the Olympic adventure continues. From 16 to eight, Episode two takes up the tale on Saturday.