It was a close-run thing. Women's football heavyweights, USA, looked out for the count on more than one occasion, but coach April Heinrich's experienced team came back off the ropes to beat Brazil 2-1 after extra time and add a second Olympic title to the gold medal won at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The Americans struggled for long periods in the Final and saw the woodwork come to their rescue twice as the aggressive and mobile South Americans, now unquestionably one of the world's top teams, piled on the pressure only for the USA to cheat the hangman's noose once again.
Brazil were not alone in producing ample evidence of rapid progress in the middle reaches of women's international football. Mexico, Nigeria, Japan and Australia have all taken great strides, although the Greek hosts' lack of experience made them cannon fodder for the big guns. World champions Germany finished with bronze after a 1-0 victory in the third-place play-off against Sweden, but there will be much wringing of hands in the Chinese camp after a feeble first-round exit.
Worthy farewell for fab five
For Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett, the spine of American women's football for so long, the Olympic triumph represented a worthy final chapter in glittering careers. The US opened with a routine 3-0 victory over Greece, but the first meeting with Brazil gave a clue of the trials and tribulations to come, as the South Americans were clearly the better team in the first half. But experience told at the end of the day and the States came through 2-0.
However, the Americans looked rattled and were held to a 1-1 draw by Australia in their final group match before battling to a narrow 2-1 victory over Japan at the quarter-final stage. Hamm and company raised their game for the semi-final against world champions Germany, taking revenge for defeat at the same stage of the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003 with a 2-1 victory after extra time, Heather O'Reilly netting the clincher in the 99th minute.
Lindsay Tarpley gave the USA the lead in the Final against the exciting young Brazilians, but Pretinha's equaliser ushered in a frantic last quarter of an hour and the South Americans twice came within a post's width of a famous triumph. But despite the daunting prospect of penalties, the USA summoned their last reserves of energy and sealed gold thanks to striker Abby Wambach's powerful header eight minutes from time.
Unlucky Brazil come up short
The Brazilians offered early clues aplenty of their potential, rattling in seven goals without reply against Greece and dominating the USA for 45 minutes before falling 2-0. Marta and company comfortably dealt with the up-and-coming Mexicans 5-0 in the last eight before meeting opposition made of much sterner stuff in the semi-final against Sweden. The FIFA Women's World Cup runners-up put up stiff resistance in the first half, but coach René Simoes' side increasingly took control in the second period and thoroughly deserved Pretinha's decisive goal. The South Americans responded superbly to the occasion of the Final, playing a level or two above themselves and asking serious questions of the Americans with a physical and aggressive approach. After Pretinha's second half equaliser, the smart money was on Brazil to clinch victory over the tottering Americans, only for Cristiane and Pretinha to see shots come back off the upright. The Brazilians looked the more mobile in extra time as the Americans tired, but experience told at the end of the day and Brazil had to be content with the silver medal.
Ever tighter at the top
The Women's Olympic Football Tournament marked an end to the former, clearly defined hierarchy once and for all. At the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003, 15 of the 32 matches ended with the margin of victory equalling or exceeding three goals, but the corresponding figure in Athens was only four of 20 games.
Australia made the last eight at a major tournament for the first time, while Japan and Nigeria provided a stern test for the USA and Germany respectively before falling to narrow 2-1 defeats in their quarter-final matches. The Japanese had already demonstrated the extent of their progress in a 1-0 opening victory over Sweden, while the Africans' triumph against Japan and narrow defeats to Sweden and world champions Germany provided more evidence of a narrowing of the gap between top and middle-ranking nations.
Mexico made it as far as the last eight but ran up against the in-form Brazilians. FIFA Women's World Cup winners and runners-up Germany and Sweden both entered the tournament with weakened squads due to injury, but still ended up in the top four. The USA now embark on an intriguing period of rebuilding with the retirement of big-name stars Hamm, Foudy, Chastain, Fawcett and Lilly.
Hosts Greece will have learnt plenty about the areas needing urgent attention, while perhaps the most intractable problem faces the Chinese, who never came close to recovering from the 8-0 hiding handed out by Germany on opening day. An illustrious team was dismantled after last year's FIFA Women's World Cup to make way for new, younger players, but the experiment looks to have been a shade too radical. However, China will undoubtedly assemble a competitive squad well ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup on home soil in 2007.
Marta: young, quick and skilful
Brazil's shooting star Marta turned in a string of classy displays at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament to crown a season bursting with youthful promise. Even at the tender age of 18, the 1.6-metre striker provides top-notch inspiration and guile, drawing appreciative applause from crowds whenever she appears.
In the Final, the USA never truly got to grips with Marta's pace and vision as she maintained a conveyor-belt of precise passes and lay-offs for fellow goal-getters Pretinha and Cristiane. Marta is technically adept and possesses prodigious individual skill but always rolls up her sleeves for the team. She won the UEFA Cup with Swedish club Umeå just a few months ago, and takes a large share of the credit for Brazil's progress to the Olympic Final, contributing a goal a game against Australia, Greece and Mexico. Lovers of football everywhere will be watching her stellar career development with great excitement.
Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, USA
Thessaloniki (Kaftanzoglio stadium), Volos (Panthessaliko stadium), Heraklion (Pankritio stadium), Athens (Karaiskaki stadium), Patras (Pampeloponnisiako stadium)
55 goals in 20 matches (average: 2.75 goals/match)
- Cristiane (BRA), Birgit Prinz (GER) 5 goals
Spectators (women's only matches):