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Argentina's Olympic heroes, 10 years on

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Shadowed by the Hand of God

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Argentina squander golden opportunity

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Argentina pushed the Germans much closer than many had imagined in the final of the World Cup, and gave the game a slightly different pattern from the one that most had imagined.

True, Germany enjoyed most of the possession, but Argentina were surprisingly pro-active, especially bearing in the mind the fact that their opponents had had an extra day's rest and that Germany's semifinal was effectively over after half an hour, whereas Argentina were out there for the full 120 minutes plus penalties.

For much of the match Argentina had the better chances. Gonzalo Higuain will be ruing his scuffed effort in the first half, Lionel Messi will be wondering how his cross shot went just wide of the post in the second, and Rodrigo Palacio may spend a sleepless night over his missed opportunity in extra time.

But the pain of Argentina's defeat comes not just from the knowledge of how close they came but also from a feeling of squandering their opportunity. In other words, if not now, then when?

So many things appeared to have fallen in their favour this time. One of them -- a splendid collection of attacking talent -- fell by the wayside. They lost Angel Di Maria to injury, Sergio Aguero was never anywhere near 100 percent fit and Lionel Messi was also clearly playing within significant physical limitations, dosing himself to a handful of moments per match. That considerably important factor aside, this still promised to be Argentina's time. The tournament was back on their home continent for the first time since 1978, and they were extraordinarily lucky with the draw. All of their matches were relatively close to their own country, allowing their supporters to flood across the border like some joyous blue-and-white-striped horde.

Perhaps even more importantly, Argentina never had to play in the sapping heat of the northeast, where Germany were based for all of their group games. Plus, of course, there was the presence of Messi, at 27 and presumably at the peak of his powers. Even though he was hampered by tiredness, at a stage of his career he has enough game smarts to ensure that his contributions are decisive.

What will Messi be like in four years' time? It is a worrying question, because the Argentine conveyor belt of youth talent appears to be slowing down. They won the Under-20 World Cup in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2007. Graduates from these teams have provided the backbone of the senior side; that 2007 win in Canada is represented with the presence of Di Maria and Aguero, as well as goalkeeper Sergio Romero, one of the surprise success stories of this World Cup campaign.

The problem is that subsequent Under-20 teams have been poor. In 2009, they did not even qualify for the Under-20 World Cup. Last year, they did even worse, not making it through to the second round of the South American Championships, despite being the tournament hosts. This, then, is a clear worry. Their Brazil 2014 squad would have been one of the oldest to win a World Cup. A big rebuilding job is clearly required. Next year's Copa America now takes on extra importance.