Argentina revels in golden moment
BEIJING -- For much of the men's Olympic soccer tournament, the focus has been on Argentine star Lionel Messi, and given his undeniable skill on the ball, much of that attention is deserved.
But history has shown countless times that one-man teams don't win tournaments, and this was proven once again in Saturday's final, with Angel di Maria's goal giving Argentina a 1-0 victory over a game Nigeria side.
It was the Benfica midfielder's second game-winner in three matches, his first coming in extra time of the Albiceleste's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Holland. When combined with the way Argentina's defense stood firm, it made for a laundry list of heroes, which was manager Sergio Batista's plan all along.
"We tried to come up with a squad that would give us a good tactical variety," Batista said through an interpreter. "But the real goal is to put together a team. Each cog plays a role, and they played to their strengths. Each player contributed to this achievement."
That said, Messi's fingerprints were all over Argentina's second consecutive Olympic triumph. Pouncing on a loose ball in midfield in the 58th minute, a quick-thinking Messi stroked a gorgeous through ball, springing di Maria on a clear breakaway.
And with Nigeria's Ambruse Vanzekin off his line, di Maria's deft chip sailed over the stranded keeper and settled into the net for the game's only goal.
It was a rare moment of magic in a match hamstrung by a midday kickoff, a brain-dead decision that resulted in an on-field temperature of 42 degrees (107 degrees Fahrenheit).
Such oppressive conditions led FIFA to take the extraordinary step of instituting breaks in the middle of each half so that players stayed properly hydrated. The move may have ensured the players' health, but it didn't increase the entertainment value.
"I think the heat affected both teams," Nigeria manager Samson Siasia said. "Most players weren't able to play to their level."
That was especially apparent in front of goal, where Nigeria spurned several clear chances. And it wasn't just wayward finishing that let Dream Team IV down.
Nigeria's day was summed up in the 34th minute, when Sani Kaita's cross not only evaded two Argentine defenders, but surprised Promise Isaac to such an extent that the ball bounced off his shins and into the grateful arms of goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
There were other opportunities as well, including substitute Victor Anichebe's redirect of a Victor Obinna cross, which looked like a sure equalizer in the 84th minute. But Romero managed to deflect it just wide of his post.
"I don't know how the keeper got to it, to be fair," Anichebe said. "I put my foot to it and I thought it was going in, and then the keeper came back."
Nigeria's profligate finishing only magnified the absence of injured attacker Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi, who scored two goals -- and apparently injured his shin -- in the 4-1 semifinal defeat of Belgium. According to Siasia, Obasi has been in so much pain over the past few days that he couldn't even jog.
"I think we missed [Obasi] a lot," Siasia said, "because that guy can do some magic, create something out of nothing."
But for all the talk of Nigeria's woes in front of goal, the match was an even affair. Not only did Argentina enjoy a slight edge in possession, but it created some good chances of its own. For one, di Maria had a clear look at goal in the 18th minute, only to scuff his attempt straight at Vanzekin. And five minutes into the second half the Nigeria keeper parried away a fierce drive from Messi.
It was then left to di Maria to show everyone how to finish, and his goal capped off a tournament in which he and Sergio Aguero did the most to take the pressure off Messi. And in the process, he also made a name for himself.
"[Di Maria] was very important for us," midfielder Javier Mascherano said. "I think he's a great player. Everyone wants him now, and he showed his qualities as a player, no?"
That he did ... and so did 17 other players as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.