Lionel Messi did not score a goal, but he set up the game-winner in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Nigeria in the gold-medal match. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)
With Lionel Messi announcing his decision to play for Inter Miami CF on Wednesday, here’s a look back on when he led Argentina to an Olympic gold medal in 2008
By Michael Lewis
BEIJING – With Lionel Messi, you just can’t win. If he doesn’t beat you one way, he’ll find another route.
Stop the 21-year-old man-child from scoring and he’ll slip a pass to a teammate to score the game-winner.
Case in point: Saturday’s men’s Olympic semifinal (Aug. 23, 2008).
Once again Messi demonstrated why he is considered one of the best soccer players in the world — perhaps the very best by some. Messi left the Bird’s Nest without a goal, but he certainly settled for some Olympic gold, setting up Angel DiMaria’s score as Argentina overcame Nigeria with a 1-0 win and 108-degree field temperatures.
The Argentines made history by becoming only the fourth men’s team to win back-to-back Olympic titles, joining the rarefied company of Great Britain (1908, 1912), Uruguay (1923, 1928) and Hungary (1964, 1968). The Argentines bested Paraguay at the Athens, Greece Summer Games in 2004, behind Manchester United star Carlos Tevez.
This time it was Messi’s turn to lead the way and shine as the Argentines ran the table for the second consecutive tournament, winning all six games and outscoring their foes, 11-2. No team had accomplished that before.
“We knew coming in that we may never have this experience again, so we are lucky that everything went well and we got what we wanted,” Messi said.
“This is a great day for the people of Argentina, and for the development of the game there,” coach Sergio Batista said.
Messi almost didn’t play in the tournament. His Spanish club team, Barcelona, won a court ruling that would have allowed it to pull back Messi. But when push came to shove, the La Liga side let the man known as “The Flea” to remain in China. It worked out well for Argentina and will allow Messi to return to Spain a contented man with motivation to perform brilliance for his club.
“People said a lot of things that annoyed me before I came to China, everyone knows that,” Messi told FIFA.com. “That’s what makes this medal so special.”
Compared to some of his earlier performances in the tournament, Messi wasn’t anywhere close to his brilliant and lethal self as Nigeria did its best to contain him. So, the Barcelona FC superstar went to Plan B — he passed. His most important one was to DiMaria, who raced in on the left side on goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin, chipping him from 18 yards in the 58th minute before a fullhouse of 89,103.
DiMaria admitted that he first thought of firing away, but changed his strategy when he saw the keeper come out of the net. “Luckily, it went in,” he said.
Nigeria coach Samson Siasia said Messi was the difference between a gold and a silver. “He terrorizes not only our team, but all teams in Europe,” he said.
But Messi realized Argentina did not perform up to the usual high standards it has set for itself.
“It was a shame that we didn’t play our best game today,” Messi said.
While Argentina’s triumph was a historical one, it will not go down as one of the better played finals. You can blame the heat for that.
“It was very hard to play,” Messi said. “We were tired and it was very hot. But the energy we had came from knowing that we were playing in the final.”
Because FIFA wanted to play the game at National Stadium, it had to settle on a noon local starting time before the final day of track and field events here (all other matches were played at night). That coincided with field temperatures of degrees. Soccer’s world governing body allowed water breaks in the 30th and 70th minutes as a precautionary measure, which is virtually unprecedented at the international level.
“In terms of spectacle, it was a very hot day for football,” Argentina coach Sergio Batista said. “The heat did influence the performance of the players, but we are not the ones who make the rules.”
“No team has actually played at noon since we started this tournament,” he said. “It affected both countries and most players didn’t perform to their level because of the heat. But we didn’t make the rules. They said play the game at 12 o’clock which I don’t think wasn’t a good idea.”
The Nigerians, trying to become the first African side to win two soccer gold medals (1996 was the first), had to settle for silver, although they made the Argentines sweat with a number of close encounters in the waning minutes.
“I do think we were our own worst enemies today,” forward Peter Odemwingie said.
The triumph gave the Argentines three major internationals over the past three years, including Under-20 World Cups in 2005 and 2007.
The Argentines’ next target for a victory lap at an international tournament? The 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Batista said he figures that seven or eight players will play for the full Argentina side, including Di Maria.
“I’m certain our victory today will help the national team on the road to the World Cup,” Batista said.
Messi took it a step further. “We are aiming to win the World Cup,” he said.
Another Olympic gold medal certainly is a good starting point.