BEIJING — A sellout crowd of 53,000 — including Diego Maradona and Kobe Bryant — jammed into Workers Stadium on a steamy Tuesday night for an Olympic semifinal soccer match that looked and felt like a final. If you didn't know any better you would have sworn you were at the Bombonera stadium in Argentina or the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
Defending champion Argentina knocked out archrival Brazil 3-0 and will try to become the first team in 40 years to repeat as Olympic champion when it faces Nigeria in the gold-medal match Saturday at the Bird's Nest. Brazil, meanwhile, leaves another Olympics without a gold medal. The five-time World Cup champions have never won the Olympics top prize.
Sergio Aguero, the 20-year-old Atletico Madrid forward, scored two goals for Argentina, and was fouled in the penalty area to set up the third. The teams were scoreless at halftime, but then Aguero worked his magic with the help of the creative Lionel Messi.
It is hardly a surprise that Aguero would shine on this big stage. He joined Argentina's first division team Independiente at the age of 9, and in 2003, shortly after his 15th birthday, he became the youngest player in Argentina's top division, beating the record previously held by Maradona.
"This game was like a final for us,'' Aguero said. "Beating Brazil is the best thing. I missed many chances against Netherlands (in the earlier round) and (Tuesday), luckily for me, I scored twice this time.''
Argentina coach Sergio Batista was pleased to see Aguero break through.
"He played fantastic,'' the coach said. "I have always believed he's got great skill and talent. I hope he plays the same in the final.''
Aguero was dangerous from the start. He took an excellent shot that hit the side of the net in the 12th minute. He eventually put "Los Albicelestes'' on the scoreboard in the 53rd minute when he chested in a pass from Angel Di Maria. Aguero scored again in the 58th minute, finishing off a play from Messi and Ezequiel Garay.
Juan Riquelme made it 3-0 on a penalty kick in the 76th minute. The fancy-footed Brazilian Ronaldinho almost scored, but he hit the post with a free kick in the 64th minute. Alexandre Pato rebounded the miss into the net, and the crowd went wild, but it was called offside and disallowed.
Brazil's frustrations were evident. Two players were thrown out with red cards late in the game – Lucas in the 81st minute for a hard foul on Argentine captain Javier Mascherano, and then Thiago Neves a few minutes later for another foul on Mascherano.
The match was the hottest ticket in town. There was so much interest that more than 100 reporters were turned away because there wasn't enough seating.
Bryant's attendance created quite a stir. Thousands of Chinese fans focused their cameras on the NBA star in the stands and chanted his name over and over until he stood up and waved. Bryant spent a good part of his childhood in Italy and became a big soccer fan. When he got up to leave with 10 minutes to go and the game safely in Argentina's hands, throngs of fans rushed up the aisles to try to get a closer photograph.
"It was the greatest game for everyone, and fortunately we managed to win it,'' said Mascherano, who plays for Liverpool in England. "It doesn't happen very often that you beat Brazil 3-nil, so we want to enjoy the moment. We haven't achieved anything yet, but beating Brazil with a result like this is wonderful. It's amazing because the last four times we played them it was not good for us.''
Nigeria won the other semifinal 4-1 over Belgium in Shanghai. Saturday's final will be a rematch of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics final, which Nigeria won, 3-2. Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi scored two goals for Nigeria on Tuesday. Olubayo Adefemi scored one, and Chibuzor Okonkwo scored the fourth.
The Argentine coach insists his team will not take Nigeria lightly. "We have been treating every match like a final, and that is what we will do again Saturday,'' Batista said.