Thursday 02 September 2004, 00:00

Argentinian flame burns brightest

Argentina arrived in Greece billed as hot favourites - a mantle that had weighed heavily upon them at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea™ and the recent Copa America, where they were beaten in the final by Brazil. This time, however, the Albicelestes stood firm to win their first-ever Olympic Football Tournament gold medal, having twice fallen at the final hurdle, in 1928 and 1996.

Overall, the 2004 competition was notable for the striking continuity of the youth category results by continent. South America confirmed its domination after last year's success at U-17 and U-20 levels by supplying both teams for the final, while Africa, having tasted triumph at the last two tournaments, suffered a distinct reversal of fortune in its failure, just like Europe, to provide more than a single representative for the quarter-finals.

Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF, by contrast, are steadily growing in power. The biggest surprise came from Iraq, whose swashbuckling style took them all the way to the semi-final, despite preparation conditions that could scarcely have been more unsatisfactory. Generally speaking, it was a decidedly attack-minded tournament, with an average of almost 3.2 goals per game (3.16) helping to ensure that 2004 was a fine vintage.

A gargantuan victor Only one major honour was missing from Argentina's trophy cabinet: the Olympic Football Tournament. Now, this last remaining void has been filled, and in quite some style too! With its plethora of wunderkinds, Marcelo Bielsa's side imperiously swept all obstacles from its path. Scoring 17 times in 6 matches without conceding a single goal, the Albicelestes quite simply gave their opponents no chance. They become the first team to lift the Olympic gold medal while keeping a clean sheet, and in Carlos Tevez, they also possess the competition's top scorer with eight goals, a tally last reached back in 1988 by a certain Bebeto. What is more, the South Americans also belied their nation's reputation for the rough stuff by lifting, jointly with Iraq, the Fair Play trophy into the bargain. Who could ask for anything more?

Right from the first match, the Argentines laid their cards firmly on the table, and Serbia & Montenegro will have recurring nightmares about the six-card royal flush deposited with a flourish on the pitch at Patras. Next, it was the turn of Tunisia to see red during a 2-0 defeat, before Bielsa's braves took on Australia in their final group match. And despite having something of an off day, they still won 1-0. Argentina must have needed a breather, and it certainly had the desired effect, as their next opponents, Costa Rica, could have testified after their 4-0 drubbing.

But Argentina saved their most impressive victory for the semi-final with Italy, where they served up a football masterclass as they clinically dispatched opponents of considerable pedigree by three goals to nil. Finally, in a somewhat anti-climactic 100% South American final against Paraguay, the Argentines did what they had to do, but no more, to win by a single goal. Within the near flawless Albiceleste firmament, Tevez's shooting star burns the brightest, closely followed by the twinkling talents of midfield dynamo Andrès D'Alessandro, defensive organiser Javier Mascherano, and the Gabriel Heinze - Roberto Ayala pairing at the back. In gauging the standard of the albiceleste squad, one fact speaks for itself: Javier Saviola never got off the bench…

Paraguay rewarded for sheer hard work Few people tipped the Albirrojos to shine at this tournament, but after topping a very tight Group C, Carlos Jara's charges grew in confidence. Narrow winners over Japan in their first match (4-3), then defeated by the Ghanaians (2-1), the Paraguayans pulled off a tremendous coup when they defeated the Italians (1-0) in their final group game. This victory, secured by a Fredy Bareiro strike, was also down to some sterling defence work, epitomised by the veteran Carlos Gamarra.

In the quarter-final, Paraguay saw off the stubborn Koreans (3-2), before comfortably putting paid to Iraq's big adventure in the semi-final (3-1). While the final against a superior Argentine outfit represented a match too far, the Albirrojos nevertheless displayed tremendous team spirit and great attacking efficiency, with twelve goals scored in all, five of them coming from seasoned campaigner José Cardozo (aged 33) and four from one of the finds of the tournament, Fredy Bareiro. The defence, despite Gamarra's experience, endured a rougher ride, conceding a total of nine goals. Also noteworthy were the fine performances of Edgar Barreto in midfield, who came to prominence at the World Youth Championship, along with the excellent playmaker Diego Figueredo.

South America supreme, Iraq surprising, Europe and Africa in declineWith both of its representatives reaching the final, the CONMEBOL zone's strength at youth level was confirmed. The multiple explanations for this dominance include constantly evolving training methods, the experience of players who almost all ply their trade in the major European leagues, and the ideal preparation provided by the Copa America in July. One thing is for sure: both these sides must already be regarded as contenders for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.

The greatest shock, however, was provided by Iraq. The Middle-Eastern outfit emerged in first place from a difficult Group C, knocking out Portugal and Morocco along the way. Courtesy of their commitment to an attacking brand of football, they then overcame the dogged Australians with a goal from Mohammed Emad, one of their star performers, before eventually coming a cropper against Paraguay and Italy to finish fourth in the tournament. Among this side with an awesome team ethic, striker Mahmoud Younis and midfielders Sadir Salih and Abdul Whahab Abu Al Hail deserve a special mention. Defying the impossible preparation conditions they have had to endure for the past year, the Iraqis showed real strength of character, repeating ad infinitum that their main aim was to spread a little happiness amongst their suffering people. And so they did, perhaps beyond all their expectations.

Africa, meanwhile, well and truly fluffed its Olympic lines. Only Mali made it through to the quarter-finals, before succumbing to the more down-to-earth Italians. Momo Sissoko and Tenema Ndiaye certainly showed flashes of brilliance, but the team distinctly lacked the effectiveness needed to advance any further. A lack of success in front of goal was the principal undoing of Morocco and Tunisia, both of whom presented patches of bright play.

The absence of certain key players not released by their clubs offer a partial explanation for their underachievement. As for Stephen Appiah's Ghana, despite looking good against Italy, they failed to seize their chance during the last group game against Japan. All things considered, it was a disappointing outcome for Africa, well below the standard of the previous two Olympic Games, at which first Nigeria then Cameroon triumphed.

At the other end of the scale, Europe's limitations were also exposed, with the notable exception of Andrea Pirlo and Alberto Gilardino's Italian semi-finalists. Serbia and Montenegro, admittedly weakened by a raft of absences, were almost nonexistent, conceding a calamitous 14 goals in three matches. Despite their home advantage, Greece scarcely fared any better, ending the tournament with just one point under its belt.

But not for the first time, it was Portugal whose underachievement was the most spectacular. One of the pre-tournament favourites, the tone was set for the Iberians when Iraq taught them a lesson (4-2) in their first game. They then recovered, albeit briefly, to beat Morocco (2-1), before well and truly caving in against the Costa Ricans (4-2). Cristiano Ronaldo resembled a little boy lost, the defence marshalled by Ricardo Costa committed a catalogue of errors, and their overall disciplinary record was quite frankly catastrophic (13 yellow cards and three reds in three games…). Only the attacker Danny emerged with any real credit.

Carlos Tevez, an exceptional strikerAll of Argentina regretted his absence from the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003, and having seen his displays at the Olympic Games, it is easy to understand why. The Boca Juniors player found the back of the net eight times in Greece from almost every conceivable position, bagging almost 50% of the albicelestes's goals (17 in all). If there is a weakness in his game, it is perhaps in the air, but the positional sense, acceleration, shooting power and opportunism of "the Apache" make him irrefutably one of the great strikers of tomorrow. Throw into the equation the two goal assists he supplied and his contribution starts to take on superhuman proportions. And scarily for his future opponents, "Carlitos" is still only 20… Participating teams: Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Ghana, Greece, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Mali, Morocco, Mexico, Paraguay, Portugal, Korea Republic, Serbia & Montenegro, Tunisia. Stadiums:Karaiskaki Stadium, Olympic Stadium (Athens), Pankritio Stadium (Iraklion), Pampeloponnisiako Stadium (Patras), Kaftanzoglio Stadium (Thessaloniki), Panthessaliko Stadium (Volos) Number of goals: 101 (average: 3.16 per match) Top scorers:8 goals: Carlos Tevez (ARG) 5 goals: Jose Cardozo (PAR) 4 goals: Fredy Bareiro (PAR), Alberto Gilardino (ITA), Tenema Ndiaye (MLI) Overall attendance (men only matches): 401,415 Average attendance:12,544