By Sportswriter Zheng Daojin
"King" Lionel Messi guided the Argentina storm to final glory at Beijing Olympic men's soccer tournament. It's a fairy tale ending -- the best team took the gold medal and other respectable teams like Nigeria and Cote d'Iovire got their rewards.
The blue and white storm nearly dominated the Olympic tournament, they clinched two consecutive Olympic titles by twelve straight wins. It's more shocking that Argentina had only two goals against in the past two Olympic games, and they even kept a clean sheet at Athens four years ago.
Messi and Co have lived up to the high expectations, beating other teams in convincing and artistic style to make the Olympic soccer games more attractive. Messi struck twice and made several crucial assists, including the Angel Di Maria winner in the final, to become the super hero of Argentina. The 21-year-old Barcelona prodigy was a constant menace to the opposite team with his fantastic dribbles, lightning pace and unparalleled imagination. Whenever the game came to a stalemate, he could always break it single-handedly.
It's a Messi's tournament, just like the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, as all the fans, media, coaches spared no efforts in praising the young talent, picking him as the difference of Argentina. To illustrate this, some Nigerian players even rushed to take a picture with him by turns after the final, and NBA star Kobe Bryant showed his admiration for Messi and came in person to watch his match.
However, Messi was tangled in a tug-of-war between his country and Barcelona club before the tournament, and was criticized by Diego Maradona for not showing any character in expressing his willing to play for Argentina. Fortunately a favourable FIFA decision and the compromise by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and Barca salvaged the player, despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport(CAS) ruled that Messi should stay with his club. The twisty plot made Messi's shinning performance more amazing.
Other Argentine magicians also had excellent shows, Juan Riquelme, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano Angel Di Maria contributed much to their 3-0 victory over archrival Brazil in the semifinal, 2-1 win over Holland, and also in the final.
The African teams displayed their strength and gifts in the tournament. Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire had two great games against Argentina, in which the final champions met big trouble with the other side's strong individual quality, and fought out narrow victories. Nigeria's greatest play was their 4-1 demolition against Belgium, who beat Italy 3-2 to reach the semis.
Nigeria and the Ivorians' open, dauntless and technical play have impressed the fans greatly and they could fly home with pride. Cameroon did well in the Group stage, but was frustrated by Brazil in the quarterfinal.
Ronaldinho's Brazil is very disappointing, as one of the favorites for the title, the Auriverde eased to the semifinal, where they were humiliated by a more attracting Argentina and had only nine men at the end of the game. Dunga's side was blamed by Maradona as too conservative and stingy. They have to wait for another four years to fight for their first Olympic soccer gold.
The European teams had mediocre performance. Belgium is a surprise with some potential stars. Italy reached the last eight in a comfortable way before eliminated by Belgium. The Netherlands proved their class by holding Argentina to the playoff in the quarter-final, but was helpless in front of Mess's clinical through pass. Serbia was the worst as they failed in the first round.
The Asian teams had some awkward results. Except South Korea's win over Honduras, Australia, Japan and China were without a single victory and all the four teams went out of competition before the knockout stage.
The United States and Honduras also failed to book a ticket to the quarterfinals.
A dozen of gifted young players have emerged from the tournament. Argentina's Di Maria, Nigeria's Peter Odemwingie, Emmanuel Ekpo and Victor Obinna, Cote d'Ivoire's Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Sekou Cisse, Holland's Gerald Sibon, Brazil's Jo, Belgium's Tom De Mul, Italy's Giuseppe Rossi are the names to mention. They are likely to be future stars.
The men's tournament has produced a total of 74 goals with an average of about 2.31 per match.
(Xinhua News Agency August 23, 2008)