Argentina’s Midas touch
© Foto-net

It was four years ago that the Albiceleste made history by winning Argentina's first ever Olympic gold medal. In doing so they compiled a perfect record of six wins out of six and no goals conceded, a feat that had many people asking whether it could ever be matched. They did not have long to wait for their answer. In front of record crowds at Beijing 2008, the South Americans proved they were in a class of their own, winning all six of their matches to climb to the top of the podium yet again.

Although the statistics might suggest otherwise, Sergio Batista's side were made to work hard for their triumph. After edging past Côte d'Ivoire (2-1), Australia (1-0) and Serbia (2-0) in a tough group phase, they came up against a formidable Dutch outfit in the quarter-finals and needed a superb extra-time strike from Angel Di Maria to keep their title defence on course and set up a semi-final with Brazil. In what turned out to be the match of the tournament, Sergio Aguero was on target twice to catapult the reigning champions to an emphatic 3-0 win. And while the final against Nigeria was no classic, Argentina claimed gold and a new Olympic record of 12 straight wins with another sublime goal from Di Maria, the revelation of the tournament.

The gold medallists unveiled another star in goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who proved a more than adequate deputy for the unfortunate Oscar Ustari. Romero, a FIFA U-20 World Cup winner last year in 2007, did not concede a single goal in 315 minutes of action in Beijing. Defender Nicolas Pareja was another stand-out for the champions, while Di Maria made an even greater impact. The Benfica midfielder started the competition on the bench, but played a vital part in Argentina's success with those match-winning goals against Netherlands and Nigeria.

Among the more established names, Juan Roman Riquelme was his usual scheming self, Lionel Messi posed defenders more problems than anyone else in the tournament, and Javier Mascherano, the only survivor from the Athens 2004 squad, made history by becoming the first Argentinian to pocket two Olympic gold medals.

Nigeria stand tall, frustration for Brazil
After their surprisingly disappointing showing in Athens, Africa's representatives did justice to the continent's reputation as an Olympic force. Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Nigeria all survived the group phase and gained the admiration of the Chinese fans in the process. Inspired by the goals of Victor Obinna and some impressive displays from Solomon Okoronkwo, Samson Siasia's team spearheaded the African challenge by reaching the final, where Argentina denied them the opportunity to repeat their historic success at Atlanta 1996.

Taking bronze behind them were Brazil, who selected their strongest possible side in a bid to capture the only piece of silverware missing from their trophy cabinet. Boasting the likes of Ronaldinho, Diego, Alexandre Pato, Lucas, Thiago Neves and Rafael Sobis, the Canarinha notched five wins and were the highest-scoring outfit in the competition with 14 goals in all. That semi-final defeat to their neighbours and arch-rivals extended their Olympic hoodoo, however, although they did gain some consolation with a comfortable defeat of Belgium in the third place match.

The Belgians' run to the last four, which included a quarter-final win over Italy, was a major surprise, while the Asian quartet of China PR, Japan, Korea Republic and Australia fell a long way short of emulating Iraq's magnificent campaign in 2004 and were all knocked out in the first round. The CONCACAF duo of USA and Honduras suffered exactly the same fate, as did Oceania contenders New Zealand.

Participating nations:
Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Korea Republic, China PR, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Serbia, USA, Honduras, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil.

Final placings:
1. Argentina (Gold)
2. Nigeria (Silver)
3. Brazil (Bronze)
4. Belgium

Fair Play Award: Côte d'Ivoire

Stadiums:
Beijing Workers' Stadium, Beijing National Stadium (Bird's Nest), Qinhuangdao Olympic Sports Center Stadium, Shanghai Stadium, Shenyang Olympic Sports Center Stadium, Tianjin Olympic Sports Center Stadium.

Total number of goals:
75 (average per game: 2.34)

Leading goalscorers:
4: Giuseppe Rossi (ITA)
3: Victor Obinna (NGA)
3: Moussa Dembele (BEL)

Total number of spectators: 1,397,448
Average crowd: 43,670