Argentina flying high going into final
ATHENS, Greece -- Argentina is the heavy favorite to win its first Olympic soccer gold medal against Paraguay on Saturday and anything but gold medals dangling from the necks of Carlos Tevez and company would be a major surprise and a devastating disappointment to the South Americans.
From the opening kickoff, the Argentines have lived up to the pre-Olympic hype and proved to be the best men's team, hands down and feet down, of the 16-team tournament, outscoring their foes by an incredible and impressive 16-0 margin.
Look at these scores:
Argentina 1, Australia 0
Argentina 2, Tunisia 0
Argentina 6, Serbia and Montenegro 0
Argentina 4, Costa Rica 0
Argentina 3, Italy 0
In case you haven't noticed, Argentina hasn't surrendered a goal. No men's team has ever gotten through the Summer Games without conceding a goal in the previous 21 soccer tournaments. And it would certainly be an Olympian accomplishment at the highest level, when you consider other Olympic champions such as Uruguay (1924, 1928), Hungary's Magic Magyars (1952), legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin's Soviet Union side (1956 - he gave up two goals), among others.
Numbers certainly don't mean an automatic gold medal, but Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has built his talented team with eight National Team players under the age of 23 -- the maximum age allowed for these games, except for three wildcard players -- around the irrepressible Tevez, Boca Juniors 20-year-old forward who has demonstrated in this competition he can do it all but play in goal.
"We came here for the gold, and that's what we're going for," Tevez said. "I want it for my mother and father who asked me to bring it home."
Bielsa is an intriguing story himself. He is considered a soccer genius, but his people skills are a bit unusual.
He has a videotape collection in the thousands that has aided him research players in his home country and scout opponents.
He knows his stuff, but turning that knowledge into practical application hasn't always been a smooth transition or successful.
Bielsa is an introverted soul, hardly ever looking at a person in the eyes when talking to him - that includes post-game press conferences (ie. after the Argentines demolished Italy, 3-0, in the semifinals) or even his own players.
Yet, he has gotten results - up to a point.
His team was favored to go far at the 2002 World Cup, but Bielsa blundered big time, deciding to use thirtysomething forward Gabriel Batistuta up front rather than Hernan Crespo, who was in his prime at 27 at the time. Argentina did not get out of its first-round group (dubbed the Group of Death with the likes of England, Sweden and Nigeria), returning home in disgrace.
Many soccer observers expected the axe to fall on Bielsa, but he somehow survived.
At the recent Copa America in Peru, Argentina was considered the favorite to win it all. Despite outplaying the Brazilians in the final, Bielsa's side twice lost one-goal leads and fell on penalty kicks.
Now the Summer Games. While the Olympics aren't as important at the World Cup or Copa, failure here is not an option especially with a team that is on everyone's lips as the champion in waiting.
"When it comes to finals, it's better not to talk about them until you've played them," Bielsa said after Tuesday's semifinal win. "It's never a good idea to try to imagine the game beforehand, because when you do that, usually the exact opposite occurs."
Of course, Argentina would have to go well out of its way to lose because of its superior talent.
The Argentines boast the marvelous Tevez, who might have been slowed down on occasion during this tournament, but never completely stopped.
His supporting is not too shabby, either (defender and team captain Roberto Ayala, a silver medalist from the 1996 Summer Games and), and sometimes you wonder if it's almost men vs. boys out there.
The Argentines, who have won a pair of World Cup titles (1978 and 1986), have never earned Olympic gold. They came close in 1996, only to watch a 2-1 lead dissolve en route to a stunning 3-2 defeat to Nigeria in the final.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a painful memory," Ayala said. "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 (Argentine Football Association)."
It's easy to forget there is another team on the other side of the pitch. The Paraguayans are poised to bring home their first Olympic medal in any sport, although a gold would definitely have a better look than a silver.
This South American side brings a 4-1 record into the match, including a 3-1 semifinal victory over Iraq (the Iraqis, incidentally, lost to Italy in the bronze-medal match on Friday, 1-0; their Cinderella run finished at 3-3)
"We faced them in the Olympic qualifiers and did enough to beat them," defender Jose Devaca said. "Unfortunately they scored twice in the dying minutes to win the tournament. Every game is different though, and I believe we can make it even more difficult for them this time. The stakes are even higher and we have some unfinished business to take care of."
The game will be held at the Olympic Stadium at the ungodly hour of 10 in the morning on Saturday. FIFA wanted the gold-medal match to be played at the main stadium and got its game. Now it's up to Bielsa, Tevez and Argentina to get their gold and make some history and get a monkey off their backs.
The spirit of 76 years ago
Regardless of who wins, a South American team is guaranteed an Olympic soccer gold medal for the first time since 1928 - when Uruguay prevailed over Argentina, 2-1, in Amsterdam in a replay (that will never happen today) after the teams drew in the original gold-medal encounter, 1-1.
That was 76 years ago two years before the very first World Cup in Uruguay, when the two rivals tussled for the final in Montevideo with the home side winning, 4-2.
In fact, the Uruguayans, who haven't participated in the Olympics since, won back-to-back gold (1924 and 1928), establishing itself as the world champions of soccer.
The Olympics were the World Cup back then. Since FIFA began its own quadrennial tournament, the Olympics have taken a backseat to the World Cup and really lost its luster from 1952 to 1980, when the Soviet Bloc dominated the medals.
A history of disappointment
In the past 20 years, three South American sides reached the gold-medal match, but only came home with the silver. Here's a quick look at the recent close calls.
1984 (Los Angeles) -- France 2, Brazil 0 -- Francois Brisson and Daniel Xuereb scored second-half goals for the French at the Rose Bowl, where a U.S. record soccer crowd of 101,799 watched the final. The huge attendances at the soccer competition helped fuel the American bid for the 1994 World Cup.
1988 (South Korea) -- Soviet Union 2, Brazil 1 -- In a memorable final, the Soviets secured victory in the 103rd minute on substitute Yuri Savichev's goal. Romario, yes, the same Romario who was a hero at the 1994 World Cup, had given the Brazilians a 1-0 lead with his tournament-high seventh goal in the 29th minute. But Igor Dobrovolsky equalized in the 63rd minute.
1996 (Atlanta) -- Nigeria 3, Argentina 2 -- Entering the final minutes, it appeared the Argentines had this game in check with a 2-1 advantage behind Claudio Lopez (second minute) and Crespo (50th-minute penalty kick). But for the second consecutive game, the Africans staged a miracle comeback. Daniel Amokachi scored in the 74th minute and Emmanuel Amunike scored in the 89th minute, taking advantage of a botched offside trap. Argentine coach Daniel Passarella was in a philosophical mood. "In life, you learn from sadness than from joy," he said. "Soccer gives you more sadness than happiness. The most important thing in life is how you deal with losing. We can sleep in peace and hold our heads high with the way we played." For the record, the Nigerians overcame a 3-1 deficit by scoring three goals from the 77th minute onward en route to a 4-3 triumph over favored Brazil in the semifinals. Nwankwo Kanu scored twice, including the Golden Goal four minutes into extra time.
The last word
Here's my final prediction: Argentine 3, Paraguay 0. Tevez will score one goal and set up another. If I was really bold, I could have gone out on the limb and taken Paraguay or given that side a goal. But being bold in this case might be considered reckless. Argentina should prevail.
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.