Argentina seek to lay the ghost of finals past
Barely a month after losing the final of the Copa América in Peru, Argentina have a chance to make amends when they line-up in the Final of the Men's Olympic Football Tournament this Saturday. Once again, the Albicelestes will have to handle the pressure of being favourites as they go in search of the country's first Olympic football gold against a disciplined and dangerous Paraguayan side.
Played 5, won 5, goals for 16, goals against 0. Argentina's statistics, on paper at least, are very intimidating. Then again, they came into the final of the South American championship with an equally daunting record, and still ended up losing to archrivals Brazil.
"I don't know if you could call this revenge. By the grace of God we've reached another final, and I just hope that this time we can go all the way and achieve what we set out to do here in Greece. The coaching staff, as well as the players, deserve something to cheer about," said Carlos Tévez, the tournament's leading goal scorer with seven strikes.
Cristian González, one of three overage players picked by Bielsa to strengthen his young side, is of the same opinion as 'Carlitos': "We've got to take things step by step and not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the misfortune of the Copa América, we picked ourselves up and bounced back. This team is hungry for glory, and as we've shown in every game, we really want that title."
"I cried when I got my silver medal in the Copa América. When you lose any final with the national side, it really hurts. But I'm not thinking about winning the silver here in Athens. I think everything will work out fine and this time we'll get the gold," confided Javier Mascherano.
Another person who refuses to contemplate similarities between the finals in Peru and Greece is the coach Marcelo Bielsa, who, slowly but surely, is beginning to rebuild his fraught relationship with the ever-demanding Argentine public. "When it comes to finals, it's better not to talk about them until you've played them. It's never a good idea to try to imagine the game beforehand, because when you do that, usually the exact opposite occurs," he explained.
It is not only the Copa América that holds bitter memories for Argentina, but also the Olympic Games themselves. Twice before they have lost in the Final, to Uruguay in 1928, and more recently to Nigeria in 1996. Roberto Ayala, currently captain of Bielsa's side, remembers only too well the agony of Atlanta: "I'm the only remaining member of the side [that played Nigeria] and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a painful memory. Now, though, I'm enjoying the thrill of leading Argentina to another final. We now have the chance to write a golden chapter in the history of the AFA [Argentine Football Association]."
Contrary to what you might think, not all the young stars of this record-breaking team - the first side ever to reach the final of a FIFA tournament without conceding a goal - remember that tragic night in Atlanta. "I vaguely remember watching it and that Argentina didn't deserve to lose," says Luis González. Javier Mascherano, for his part, recalls: "I don't remember much, as I was only twelve at the time, except for that goal at the end for Nigeria and a huge sense of frustration. Now, though, we have a chance to write our own page in history."
"I remember nothing about it," says Fabricio Coloccini. "I do, I remember it," admits Gabriel Heinze, "but I don't even want to think about it. It's not that I'm superstitious or anything, but..."
Paraguay, an old friend
On 23 January 2004, Argentina and Paraguay met in the South American Olympic qualifiers in Chile. Contrary to expectations, Argentina were pushed right to the wire by a surprisingly tough Albirroja side, and it took two late goals by Luciano Figueroa to give the Albiceleste a narrow 2-1 victory.
"Anyone who has seen Paraguay play knows exactly what's in store for us on Saturday. They are a battle-hardened side that are extremely difficult to break down. They don't give away much at the back, nor are they cavalier up front," affirmed Bielsa.
Though Andrés D'Alessandro did not take part in January's game, he feels that Paraguay are "a serious rival with quality players and fighting spirit," a sentiment shared by Mascherano. "Although we beat them in Chile, that will have no bearing on Saturday's game. To reach the final they have shown themselves to be a very good side, but we have to concentrate on what we're capable of, and not on our opponents."
The last word went to Carlos Tévez, who summed up the feeling in the Argentine camp as he explained why the team would not settle for the silver medal they had already secured: "We came here for the gold, and that's what we're going for. I want it for my mother and father who asked me to bring it home."