For Argentinian football fans, 28 August 2004 will forever be remembered as the day the Albiceleste won the Olympic Football Tournament for the very first time. With Carlos Tevez in unstoppable form, coach Marcelo Bielsa's charges edged out fellow South Americans Paraguay in a fiercely contested final in Athens to take their country's first footballing gold medal.
Since then, much has changed and the level of expectation surrounding the Olympic class of 2008 is higher than ever. As defending champions, Argentina will head to China determined to hold onto their crown, and in the process deny arch-rivals Brazil the only title that still eludes them. Coach Sergio Batista is set to have a sparkling array of talent at his disposal, a genuine golden generation who will come together for the first time in 6 February's friendly clash with Guatemala.
Sergio Batista, the chosen one
After a great deal of speculation, the responsibility of heading the Olympic team in Beijing eventually fell to Batista, only recently appointed to the helm of Argentina's U-20 side. The former Godoy Cruz supremo has a hard act to follow in none other than Marcelo El Loco Bielsa, who guided the Albiceleste to gold in 2004 and now coaches the Chilean senior side.
"When I scored that goal in the final against Germany in the Estadio Azteca, I ran to the side of the pitch and fell to my knees. When I looked up, the first person who had run over to embrace me was Batista. With his long hair and that beard, and with his arms open wide, it was like seeing Jesus," said Jorge Burruchaga, recalling the aftermath of his winning strike in the FIFA World Cup Final at Mexico 1986.
It was Batista, from his place at the heart of the Argentina midfield, who ensured that Maradona and Co kept their tactical shape on the way to taking the 1986 world title. His mission for Beijing 2008 will be to do the same - from the other side of the white line. "It's an honour to coach the national U-23 side, even more so given that it won gold back in 2004," said the former Argentinos Juniors and River Plate player. "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."
A dream team in the making?
The first player to publicly make eyes at the new coach was midfield string-puller Juan Roman Riquelme. The Boca Juniors No10 was quick to underline his desire to appear in China, much to Batista's delight.
"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 Roman, (Javier) Mascherano and (Martin) Demichelis as the overage players," says the up-and-coming tactician. "I just love how Riquelme plays, Mascherano provides the necessary balance in midfield and Martin would add experience to our backline."
In a move sure to send shivers down the spines of Argentina's opponents in China, Batista has also called up a veritable legion of Spanish-based talent in Ever Banega, Fernando Gago, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Lionel Messi ahead of his team's first friendly encounter on 6 February.
El Pulga, however, will not be taking part after FC Barcelona asked for him to be excused, fearing a recurrence of Messi's recent injury problems. "We understand the club's point of view and we have no problem respecting their wishes. We know all about Lio and we know what he can do," said Batista, fully aware of the pressure of managing a squad packed with so many star names.
"We mustn't start thinking about any issues the media
might bring up. Our only concern should be building a good squad
and choosing wisely," explained Batista. "Fortunately
Argentina have a large number of quality young players, such as
those who formed the backbone of the team that won the U-20 title
in Canada. That's one thing we don't have to worry
Given the players under his command, the Albiceleste will surely be the team to beat come August's showpiece event.