Olympic firsts, and last respects
THE DAY REPLAYED - The Olympic Football Tournament reached its climax today, 28 August, with a historic and richly-deserved 1-0 victory for Argentina over Paraguay. By scoring 17 goals in their six matches, thanks in no small part to the tournament's top scorer Carlos Tevez, and not conceding any, the Argentines claimed their first ever football Gold Medal in emphatic style. The Paraguayans also have cause to be proud, since their Silver was the country's first ever Olympic medal of any kind. The Bronze went to Italy yesterday, who scored the only goal of their play-off against Iraq in Thessaloniki. The Iraqis' reward for a sensational run in this tournament was to share the Fair Play trophy with Argentina, who are patently gluttons for glory.
The all-South American Final got underway in Athens' Olympic Stadium early on Saturday. Iraq and Italy had produced an entertaining curtain-raiser the previous night in Thessaloniki, where Joseph S. Blatter was on hand to see two teams perform with panache despite the sadness they must have felt after the execution in Iraq of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni on the eve of the game. The atmosphere in the stadium was understandably subdued as a result.
In a pre-match press conference, both the FIFA President and the Head of the Iraqi Delegation, Dr. Amer Jaber, had reminded the assembled media that football was a vector of fraternity between peoples and that the Iraq team were eager to use this match as an opportunity to send an appeal to the kidnappers. Unfortunately, they were not given the time to act on this noble intention.
Before kick-off, the two teams posed together for photographs in a display of friendship and as a joint tribute to Baldoni. The Italians also wore black armbands. The match itself turned out to be an absorbing affair, which Italy won thanks to a goal after 8 minutes by Alberto Gilardino, who, not for the first time in this tournament, combined brilliantly with Andrea Pirlo.
Despite going behind so early, the Iraqis did not lose heart and their by-now familiar attacking vim posed plenty of problems for the Italian backline. Farhan Razzaq and Sadir Salih created a handful of openings but just as in the semi-final, they could not capitalise on them. With Mahmoud Younis and Mohammed Emad, unquestionably Iraq's two best players throughout the competition, left on the bench, Iraq's medal dreams evaporated and instead it was the Italians who picked up their first football medal since 1936 - a fine way to commemorate Baldoni.
The next morning, the Final between Paraguay and Argentina got underway amid the intense heat in Athens' Olympic Stadium. The two teams know each other inside out, having faced each other on numerous recent occasions including in the qualifying rounds, when the Albicelestes triumphed 2-1. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt and it has to be said that even though these two teams were joint-top of the Fair Play league going into the game, the Final was exactly a timid affair. Tempers were high for much of the game, and with elbows flying about the referee had to keep an eagle eye on proceedings.
Having blazed a scorching trail to the Final by scoring 16 times in five matches without reply, Argentina were overwhelming favourites, particularly as injury stripped Paraguay of the services of the inspirational José Cardozo. Marcelo Bielsa's men wasted little time confirming that the tipsters were right, as the revelation of the tournament, 20-year-old Boca Juniors striker Carlos Tevez, fired them into the lead with his eighth goal of the Games. Tevez's haul makes him the tournament's top marksman and is also the highest, along with Bebeto's eight in 1998, of any Olympic Games in the modern era, which began in 1984. Cardozo finished with five strikes to his name, meaning he came runner-up in the goal-scoring charts for the second time in an Olympic Tournament.
"Carlitos" had further chances to add to his total, and Luis Gonzalez and Mauro Rosales also could have increased the Argentine lead but for once the Albiceleste did not have their shooting boots on. Bielsa's boys dominated most of the match and, paradoxically, it was only when the expulsion of Emilio Martinez reduced Paraguay to ten men that Aureliano Torres, Fredy Bareiro and Diego Figueredo came close to breaching the Argentine defence. When Figeredo got his marching orders a short time later, however, it was clear that there would be no way back for the Albirrojos
They may only have won the Final 1-0, but Argentina romped to their first-ever Gold in the Olympic Football Tournament, and their first in any sport for 52 years. The disappointed Paraguayans, meanwhile, can console themselves with the knowledge that they too made history by winning their country's first-ever Olympic medal of any kind. And that is some achievement.