The Olympic Football Tournament is probably not going to be the highlight of your year as a fan. Be honest, football isn’t what you’ll be watching the Olympics for, after all.
And with the European Championship and the Copa Libertadores having provided some brilliant football and no end of surprises, the UEFA Champions League and Europe’s biggest domestic competitions having been as widely watched as ever, and a new season just around the corner, you could be forgiven for making the matches about to take place in China something of a lower priority.
To do so, though, would be to risk missing some of the most beautiful football to be played between now and the end of the year, because at least one team at the Beijing games have it in them to entertain to as high a standard as a proper full national team.
That’s because, at one end of the pitch at least, they are a full national team, or near as dammit. Four years ago Carlos Tevez led Argentina’s side to the country’s first-ever Olympic Gold medal — in any sport (they won the polo back in the ’50s, but it was only a test event). For Beijing, Tevez won’t be there, but the players who will be suggest there’s every chance of the champions defending their title.
A number of other sides have some potential going forward — Brazil are seeking to revitalise Ronaldinho’s career and include his new team-mate at AC Milan, Alexandre Pato, whilst Italy’s squad contains no shortage of young attacking talent — but it’s only Argentina who look the finished unit in this regard. Not convinced? Then let’s look at the options:
You probably don’t know Lautato Acosta‘s name yet, but you should do before too much longer. Excellent for
Argentinos Juniors Lanus back at home over the last year, he’s been signed this summer by Sevilla and, as a dropping-off forward who can also play wide left or right, should fit in well at an attack-minded club who’ll be looking to get back into La Liga’s Champions League spots at the end of this season.
Ezequiel Lavezzi started his Napoli career a year ago with a hat-trick on his competitive debut in front of a home crowd who, perhaps understandably, will always have high expectations of any Argentine forward who’s given the number 10 jersey (they once had rather a good one apparently, Diego Something-or-other…).
That was followed by a season in Serie A which saw his club claim a UEFA Cup spot as he scored a number of goal-of-the-month contenders and began to look like a less selfish and more team-orientated player than he’d been, to be perfectly frank, the previous season at San Lorenzo (when he won the Clausura championship in Argentina’s Primera A).
Among the other more attack-minded Argentine players are a couple listed in the squad papers as ‘midfielders’, but in reality operate as attackers for their clubs, although they’re capable of playing deeper.
Diego Buonanotte is another you probably won’t know about, but he’s just been the player of the championship as River Plate reclaimed the league title in Argentina after a four year wait, his side’s leading goalscorer and assist-maker during the Torneo Clausura.
Angel Di MarÃa has enjoyed a decent first season at Benfica in Portugal, showing his creative abilities. As well as his pace, passing and finishing, he’s also got more height than the rest of the team, which might see him moved further up the pitch should Sergio Batista, the Olympic squad’s manager, see a need to vary the attack at all.
A trident of players, though, will be the focus of Argentina’s attacking. One is an overage player, Boca Juniors’ Juan Román Riquelme, who will be sitting between the midfield and the attackers, pulling the strings and supplying the ammo for whichever forwards are ahead of him.
If he arrives in the box, Riquelme’s also shown his goal threat: at club level, it’s been remarked by several critics that he’s a better finisher than the striker he normally provides for, and when one of those strikers is MartÃn Palermo, a man chasing the club’s all-time goalscoring record, that’s quite a statement.
The other two players of the three are the two who are likely, injury and form permitting, to play ahead of Riquelme. Lavezzi and Acosta would probably both have aspirations of starting for any of the competition’s other teams, but for Argentina they’ll be happy to play second fiddle — or rather, third and fourth fiddle — because the men (or should we remind ourselves once more that they’re really boys?) ahead of them are two of the hottest attacking talents in the world at the moment.
Atlético Madrid have just qualified for the Champions League for the first time in over a decade, thanks in no small part to the abundant talents of Sergio El Kun Agüero, a player even the Real Madrid-biased sections of Spain’s press have been singing the praises of this season.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are rebuilding their team after, by their standards, a disastrous couple of years, and part of that rebuild involves handing Ronaldinho’s old number 10 shirt to his heir. To Maradona’s heir, perhaps. Arguably, to a talent who, if he can avoid any more serious injury, could become the greatest player of the 21st century.
It was confirmed last week, after a lot of ridiculous posturing from Barcelona president Joan Laporta, who seemed unaware that FIFA regulations mean his club had to let any Under-23 player in their squad travel to the Games if he accepted his country’s call-up, that Lionel Messi would join the Argentine squad.
When the news was announced, it’s probably fair to assume that goalkeepers and defenders in the squads of Ivory Coast, Australia and Serbia — Argentina’s three opponents in the group stage — had to go for a bit of a sit down. It turned a team who were already red-hot favourites for gold into one who might be absolutely devastating.
It won’t all be plain sailing for Argentina. Javier Mascherano is the other over-aged player alongside Riquelme, but in spite of his abilities the defence, if tested, might be found wanting — they’re all playing for big clubs, but lack first team experience at present.
And if the recent row that erupted prior to the senior side’s World Cup qualifier away to Brazil – when Messi questioned the side’s over-reliance on Riquelme, who wasn’t in the best of form or health – resurfaces, the dressing room dynamic might not prove the calmest.
One thing, though, is for sure: whilst there are other teams in the competition capable of winning it on their day, none of them have the potential to click in so spectacular a fashion as Argentina might do.
If Messi, Agüero, Riquelme and Co. perform to half of what they’re capable of, who knows? You might actually find yourself sitting up and paying some attention to the Olympic Football Tournament. Now, who’d have thought it….
For more insight on Argentinian football, read Sam Kelly at Hasta El Gol Siempre.