Not many players are fortunate enough to compete in an Olympic Football Tournament, and even fewer still to win two medals. Argentina’s Roberto Fabian Ayala is one of those privileged few, having collected a silver at Atlanta 1996 and then gold at Athens 2004.
Given that pedigree, El Ratón (“The Mouse”) knows just what it means for a professional player to experience the Olympics. An icon of La Albiceleste for the best part of 15 years, he told FIFA.com: “When you’re a player, your dream and your goal is to play in the World Cup. But the Olympic Tournament is very different to any competition that you can play in, first and foremost because it’s so amazing to be able to share the Village with other athletes.”
The former River Plate, Napoli, AC Milan, Valencia and Zaragoza man added: “I realised at my second Olympics just what the spirit of being an athlete is all about. Atlanta was just another tournament because we were in a different city, away from it all. But in 2004 we stayed in the Olympic Village and I was able to soak up the spirit of amateur sport, which is such a feature of the place. Ask any athlete from anywhere in the world and from any sport, and they’ll tell you that the best thing that can happen to you is to be there.”
Expressing his surprise and gratitude at being able to rub shoulders with sportsmen and women for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle, Ayala said: “I remember a Paraguayan pole vaulter telling us in 1996 that he was preparing to fight for a medal at the following Games, which just goes to show how much these athletes plan ahead.
“It was a few years before we realised just how much any of those three medals means. Obviously, everyone wants to win the gold, but you should ask those athletes what they’d give to get a bronze.”
Memories of tournaments pastIn the Atlanta 1996 final, Argentina went down 3-2 to Nigeria. “We lost in the very last minute, trying to play the offside trap, which we got a lot of criticism for,” recalled Ayala. “The thing is, we’d prepared that very routine for key phases and it was the perfect time to use it.
“The only problem was, a team-mate played them onside. We took the risk and paid for it. That said, that Nigeria team was the best they ever had. We didn’t lose to any old team. It was frustrating for us at the time, but we’ve realised that the medal and the experience were really valuable.”
Eight years later in Athens, Argentina atoned in the best possible fashion, producing their best ever performance at the Olympics to win gold. In doing so, they won all six of their games, scored 17 goals, conceded none, boasted the competition’s top scorer in Carlos Tevez, and even walked off with the Fair Play Award.
“We’d just lost in the Copa America final, which was a bitter blow for us,” explained the former centre-half, who captained the side in Greece. “That team didn’t concede any goals and played some very good football. For me, it was such a relief. I remember crying at the end of the game, down on my knees and hugging Javier Mascherano. It was the biggest title I won with the national team.”
Fabian, as he is known to those close to him, has fond memories of sharing a mate infusion or two and a chat with Argentina’s men’s volleyball and hockey teams, though one of his funniest Olympic stories involves another team altogether. “In 2004, we came across the Chinese basketball squad one lunchtime, and my team-mate Lucho Gonzalez asked me to go and ask Jao Ming if he could have a photo. He was so tall. He was sitting down and he was still as tall as I was on my feet.
“I went up to him, asked him nicely, and he said no! We laughed about it because he made us feel so embarrassed. And I realised there and then that it’s not very nice to turn someone down when they ask you for an autograph or a photo. So from that day on, I never turned anyone down.”
Medal contenders Coached by 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ winner Julio Olarticoechea, Argentina’s current Olympic team has already taken up residence at the Olympic Village in Rio. Drawn in Group D with Portugal, Algeria and Honduras, La Albiceleste will open their 2016 campaign against the Portuguese at the Olympic Stadium on 4 August.
Ayala sees his countrymen as genuine candidates for the title: “The coach had a few problems getting a team together because of injury and a few players who couldn’t go, but if you look at the squad man for man, you can see that it’s got huge potential.”
The 43-year-old Ayala added: “They’ve got every chance of being in the fight for the medals. Argentina have got a lot of quality and a coach who has a very clear idea of things, who really knows how to get his message across. The players seem to be really up for it because they know they can go down in the history of Argentinian football.”
As his country’s third-most capped player of all-time with 115 appearances, 63 of them as captain – an Albiceleste record – Ayala knows a thing or two about making history.