Sergio Aguero has shone on football’s biggest stages, playing for his country in the FIFA World Cup and Copa America, and scoring freely for clubs in the Spanish Liga and Premier League following his breakthrough as the youngest debutant in the Argentine league at 15. For Diego Maradona’s son-in-law, it must be hard to separate the extraordinary from the everyday, yet get him on the subject of the Olympic football tournament and he does not hesitate to describe it as “unique”.
The prospect of tomorrow’s draw for the football event at this year’s London Olympics had Aguero casting his mind back four years ago to Beijing where he played a prominent part in Argentina’s triumph, scoring twice in the semi-final defeat of Brazil before the victory over Nigeria in the gold-medal match. “I had never been to the Olympics and my team-mates who had been said it was something incredible,” Aguero remembered. “When it came to my turn, it was something unique, that you can only experience once. I was so pleased and especially because we could achieve the gold medal.”
Aguero was reflecting on the Olympic experience with his City colleague and compatriot Pablo Zabaleta, also a gold medallist with Argentina in 2008. The pair sat down with FIFA.com after an autograph session with fans at the Etihad Stadium club shop to reflect on that shared memory and look ahead to this year’s Olympic Games, taking place in the country they currently call home.
The presence of Olympic football in Manchester – albeit at Old Trafford, home of City’s rivals Manchester United – will “bring back a lot of memories” for Aguero, and he believes the 16 men’s and 12 women’s teams will find the perfect stage in Britain to create new ones. “People coming from abroad for the first time will like for sure the stadiums and training complexes. They won’t regret being here.”
Zabaleta may joke about the rain that traditionally dampens the summer in these parts but he concurs. “Britain is very well prepared to host an Olympics,” he said. “It will take place in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. For Britain it is a great challenge, and, as Sergio said, especially for the athletes who will enjoy an unforgettable experience.”
For Zabaleta, being at the Olympics is wholly different from the usual experience of a professional footballer, and all the more precious for that. “When we go to play in any tournament, friendly matches, whatever, we always go in very professional way, with the tools to work, good hotels, good food, everything is great. The difference with the Olympic Games is the amateur spirit. There you’re in the same boat as all the other sportsmen, athletes from other disciplines – you have the same rooms, with six or eight in the same apartment with just one bathroom. You have to get a bus to go and eat; you’re training in difficult places. This is the difference.”
In the case of Argentina’s footballers in Beijing, this allowed priceless opportunities to mingle with big names from other sports, as Zabaleta explained. “We had the good fortune to meet [Rafa] Nadal, Kobe Bryant, other Argentinian sportsmen who were staying in the same place.” There were also outings to see Las Leonas, Argentina’s women’s hockey team, recalled Aguero, though it is the Argentina “basketball team” that he will be following closely in London, given the footballers’ failure to qualify.
It is Brazil and Uruguay who will fly the flag for South America instead and the significance of the Olympic football tournament was spelled out further by former Brazil strike ace Ronaldo, who will assist at tomorrow's draw at Wembley Stadium. He was part of the Brazil side that won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games and he ranks that experience “among my greatest achievements in football”. In Ronaldo’s words “the Brazil national team always aims for first place, but sport, and the Olympic Games in particular, teach us to value all accomplishments.”
If there is no doubting the impact of the Olympic spirit even on hardened professional footballers, Zabaleta expands further on the significance, as an Argentinian abroad, of playing for his country. “We left [Argentina] some time ago and to go back and spend time with people from your country and be with your family who are still there is special, to represent you country is something extra,” he said. He and Aguero were part of the Argentina side that reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America on home soil last year – “playing in your home country with your own people is great,” says Zabaleta – and their association at international level goes back much further.
Zabaleta, then 20, captained Argentina at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup, leading a team that included both Aguero and Lionel Messi to the trophy. “He learned a lot from me,” jokes Zabaleta though Aguero, 17 at the time, was already a first-teamer with Independiente. Two years later Aguero followed his friend’s lead by skippering Argentina to the title again (winning the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe too), and he sees a clear reason for La Albiceleste’s success at junior levels. “In Argentina, unlike in Europe, the coaches give you your chance very young. This gives you experience and when you go to the U-20s you’re up against players from Europe who aren’t playing in the top flight so you have the advantage.”
Of course, Argentina in 2005 had another advantage: Leo Messi. “From when he was little you could see he was different; he had a special touch,” Aguero says of the Barcelona ace. “Already in that tournament you could tell he was going to go very far.” As far as Beijing, in fact, where he helped illuminate the last Olympics – with a helping hand from the two Argentinians who were busy lighting up a rainy afternoon in Manchester for a long queue of fans last week.