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Aug 28, 2004

Argentina sets gold standard

ATHENS, Greece -- Only time will tell how Argentina's fabulous Olympic run will be viewed in international soccer history.

Like it or not, Olympic fans, but the Summer Games are but a mere blip on the way to the World Cup for many teams. Now, that's where soccer greatness and failure are truly measured.

By itself, the Argentines' accomplishment was quite extraordinary, imposing and astonishing, considering the long and storied history of the competition. They ran the table, winning all six of their matches while outscoring their opposition, 17-0, and becoming the first champion in 22 Olympic soccer tournaments not to concede a goal.

It is one of the greatest, if not the greatest Olympic triumph, of all time.

Their final victory, however, was hardly anything to write home about, a 1-0 win over Paraguay at Olympic Stadium on Saturday morning (yes, Saturday morning; the game kicked off at 10 a.m.).

Carlos Tevez, undisputedly the man of the tournament, scored the lone goal of the match in the 18th minute, but for the rest of the game he was rather muted. Perhaps he was slowed down by a rather unexpected elbow by Paraguay captain and defender Carlos Gamarra.

It earned Gamarra a yellow card, but his calculated risk was worth it. Tevez had some other dangerous chances, but he never scored or set up a goal the rest of the way.

If game officials protect Tevez, then there is little doubt he is headed for a prosperous and productive career, most likely in Europe. He is likely to remain with Boca Juniors for another year as the Argentine First Division club hopes his price tag goes through the roof. Don't bet against it if he continues his marvelous performances.

As the leading Olympic goal-scorer and his overall performance, Tevez's Olympic legacy is secure, Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, who doesn't like to single out any of his players, said that midfielder Andres D'Alessandro and Tevez will become "elite sportsmen."

A number of teams have used the Olympics as a stepping stone to World Cup or international glory:

Start with the marvelous Uruguayan teams of the Twenties that captured gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Games and then the very first World Cup in Montevideo in 1930.

Continue with the 1948 Swedish Olympic gold-medal winning team, which used several players on its runner-up side at the 1958 Olympics to Brazil and a certain 17-year-old debutante named Pele.

And finish with the rousing 1952 triumph by the Magic Magyars of Hungary. They bested virtually everything thrown in their path -- remember that stunning 6-3 win in England in 1953? -- before losing the lead and eventually the game to eventual world champion Germany in 1954.

Asked if he thought Olympic gold was a stepping stone to World Cup triumph, Bielsa replied, "I think these are two completely different individual competitions. Success here doesn't mean we'll get anything in the World Cup. If a team doesn't play here, I don't know if the World Cup will be ... unsuccessful for them."

Bielsa was absolutely right.

In recent years, Olympic success has not meant triumph at the international level or in the World Cup:

  • The Soviet Union won in 1988, but no Russian team since then has reached the World Cup semifinals.

  • Spain captured Olympic gold in 1992, but the Spanish have continued a frustrating history of finding ways to trip themselves at the World Cup.

  • Nigeria pulled off two consecutive knockout round comebacks against vaunted sides from Brazil and Argentina in 1996, but has struggled to get past the second round in 1998 and 2002.

  • And Cameroon, the 2000 champions, did not make much of a splash at Korea/Japan 2002, while WC debutantes Senegal did, stunning defending champion France in the tournament opener and actually getting out of the first round.

    The jury, of course, is still out on Argentina, although the pieces are there for some success at Germany in two years time. Bielsa included eight players from his National Team on his Olympic squad. It was all very legal in this Under-23 competition, since teams are allowed as many as three over-23 players.

    The gut feeling here is that Bielsa, Tevez and and company will do well. Right now, Argentina must be ranked as one of the favorites for 2006 along with defending champion Brazil, even if both countries have yet to qualify for the tournament, which will be held in Europe.

    Not surprisingly, Bielsa would have none of that. He has a World Cup qualifying match coming up against Peru on Sept. 4. That's all he's focused on.

    ""I don't know if this team will be the one for 2006," he said. "That World Cup is still far away and I can't make any prediction about the future. But talking of the present, this success is important for the Argentinean people and we're proud to bring them back the gold medal and to give them a little bit of joy in their lives."

    South American teams usually don't fare well when the World Cup is in Europe -- only Brazil has won on the continent, the fabulous 1958 team -- so saying any team from south of Rio Grande is an early favorite across the pond is a strong statement.

    But look at the other usual suspects who should be contending. France is in a rebuilding mode. Host Germany is competitive, but is just a shell of its former self and has gotten by on sheer guts and will. England seemingly finds a way to bog down in the quarterfinals. Spain, you know its history of tripping itself up.

    If Argentina can prevail on European soil, now that certainly would be history in the making. And who knows? Bielsa might look back at the 2004 Olympics as a stepping stone.

    We're just going to have to be patient and wait at least another two years.

    Chip shots

  • Counting the house: The gold-medal match crowd was announced at 41,116, the largest crowd of the competition, but it pales in comparison to some other recent men's Olympic finals - 104,000 in Sydney (2000), 104,000 in Athens, Ga. (1996), 95,000 in Barcelona (1992), 73,000 in Seoul, Korea (1988), 101,799 in Los Angeles (1984) and 80,000 in Moscow (1980) and 71,617 in Montreal (1976). It was the third lowest final crowd since the end of World War II, using the 1948 Summer Games as a starting point. The two lowest crowds since then have been listed as 30,000 in Munich (1972) and 30,000 in Rome (1960). In an anomaly, the 1972 bronze-medal match, which pit East Germany against the Soviet Union, outdrew the final, attracting 80,000 spectators. It is difficult to understand with Greece winning the European Cup just a while ago that not more people would come out to watch the Olympics gold medal match. It will be interesting to see the final attendance count for all sports and how this stacks up to recent Summer Games totals.

  • Poor turnout: As far as I could tell, there were only three print journalists who attended the soccer gold-medal match -- Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald, Grahame Jones of the Los Angeles Times and myself. Granted, it didn't have the intrigue of U.S.A. basketball or someone getting thrown out of the Summer Games due to drugs, but the game featured a star of today and tomorrow -- Mr. Tevez -- many of us will be writing about in two years time.

  • No boasting: Even though his team had just won the Olympic gold, Bielsa did not gloat over the victory. "I'm very happy," he said. "My joy is proportional to the importance of this event. To be Olympic champion is something huge. I've been criticized before, but it's part of professional football. I'm just enjoying the moment."

  • The hard men of Paraguay: Can't believe some of Paraguay's hard fouls in the final. Yes, soccer is a rough sport, but you certainly don't expect rough play like that in a gold-medal match: seven yellow cards and two red cards. The two red cards in a final is an Olympic record. Would love to see a rule that if you get a straight red card in an Olympic final a player receives his or her medal privately, but cannot enjoy the medal ceremony.

  • The eyes have it: Well, what do you know? Miracles do happen. In my Friday column I wrote that Bielsa does not make eye contact with members of the media when he is answering questions. Well, during the press conference after the gold-medal match, I could have sworn he was looking at the audience. No, I still can't tell the color of his eyes are. Maybe next time.

    Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.