Lionel Messi leaves you reaching for adjectives and superlatives so often that it could be a test of your vocabulary. Awestruck, mesmerising, amazing… this precocious footballer often makes you do that for 90 minutes and more. For those not used to seeing him up close week in, week out at Barcelona’s Camp Nou or for Argentina the sense of wonder is even more. That’s how it was at the National Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
You were left wondering how a man can run this fast with a ball stuck to his foot? Or how he can dribble and shimmy past opponents without losing balance. Well, if he is Messi anything is possible.
With the gold medal at stake, the Barcelona and Argentina star enthralled the crowd with deft passes and sizzling runs. And in the presence of Diego Maradona and in searing heat, Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0 to retain Olympic football’s top prize.
Argentina’s initial struggle to get Messi released from Barcelona has paid off. Playing with almost the same squad that won the World Youth Championships in 2005 beating Nigeria in the final, the Latin American team boasted of one of the strongest lineups here.
But then it was Messi all the way in this competition. If he was not helping the team with goals, he was creating space for others to drive home winners.
Heat is on
Under a scorching midday sun with temperature hovering around 38 degrees centigrade, the packed National Stadium was chanting just two names — Argentina and Messi. Though there were two one-minute water breaks in both the halves (30th and 70th minute), the players were visibly tired by final whistle.
Nigeria, the 1996 Games gold medallist following a 3-2 victory over Argentina, had filed out with a definite gameplan — thwart Messi’s runs. Missing the inspirational Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi who scored twice in the 4-1 win against Belgium with a shin injury, and defending their territory with numbers and relying on counter-attacks, they managed to make speedy inroads into Argentina’s defence from both the flanks.
The pass master
Despite close marking, Messi tried to wriggle through by switching flanks. By the 58th minute, Argentina found a chink. On the counter, Riquelme tackled and released Messi in quick-time in Argentina’s half. With a brisk step or two, Messi found pace and seeing Angelo Di Maria running down the right, he sneaked a grounder behind defender Olubayo Ademefi. With just the goalkeeper to beat, Di Maria ran down towards the goal, Ademefi in hot pursuit. Seeing goalkeeper Vanziken advancing, he skilfully chipped over him to drive home the decider.
Messi was ecstatic after the match. “We were the favourites to win the gold and we have done it,” he said. “After our quarterfinal win over the Netherlands, we showed that we were a superior team.”
Messi was not too happy though with the team’s performance this afternoon. “Though we did not play our best game today, we somehow managed to win. And that matters,” he said.
On his Olympic moment, Messi said: “I am very happy for all the moments I have lived here. It is really a great feeling after all those anxious times I had to endure before the I joined the team,” he said, the smile never leaving his face.
With the limelight on Messi, one man quietly created history. Mascherano became the first Argentine in Olympic history to have won gold twice.
Indraneel Das Deputy Sports Editorfrom Beijing