BEIJING – Lionel Messi is only 21 years old, and already he is a global soccer megastar. He plays for Barcelona, makes $35 million a year, is an adidas poster boy, drives a fancy car, and can afford just about anything his heart desires. But the one thing he wanted more than anything this summer he couldn't buy with a credit card.
He wanted an Olympic gold medal.
He craved it so badly that he defied his club and came to the Olympics to join his Argentine teammates without Barcelona's blessings. FIFA got involved, club officials eventually relented, and it all paid off for Messi on a steamy Saturday at the Bird's Nest.
Angel Di Maria, known as "El Angelito" (The Little Angel), collected a perfect Messi pass and chipped in a goal from 20 yards in the 58th minute to beat Nigeria 1-0 for the gold medal. Argentina became the first team to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in soccer since Hungary did it in 1964 and 1968.
Kickoff was at noon under the blazing sun, and the temperature on the field reached 107 degrees. Conditions were so oppressive the game was stopped in the 30th and 70th minute to give players a chance to drink water, a practice usually reserved for recreation leagues and unheard of in international soccer.
The heat and humidity sapped some energy from players on both teams, and what should have been a highly-entertaining match between two skillful, speedy teams turned out to be a bit of a yawner. Organizers wanted the final match at the 90,000-seat Bird's Nest rather than the 53,000-seat Workers Stadium, but track and field takes precedence at the Olympics, so soccer was stuck with a day slot.
"It affected both countries and most players did not play to their abilities because of the heat," said Nigeria coach Samson Siasia. "I don't think it was a good idea to play at noon."
Argentina coach Sergio Batista agreed. "It wasn't the same spectacle it could have been if it was played at night. It was very, very hot."
Neverthless, the Argentines found plenty of energy to celebrate afterward. They got in a huddle and bounced up and down like human pogo sticks for several minutes. Then they formed a circle at midfield, held hands, and danced around in a circle, like children doing Ring Around The Rosie. Then, just before the medal presentation, they bounced up and down again and poured water bottles all over each other.
Watching from the sideline, surrounded by a mob of photographers, was Argentine legend Diego Maradona.
"I knew even before we got here that this would be a worthwhile experience," Messi said. "That's why I fought so hard to come here, and I am grateful for my club for letting me. I wanted to be with my teammates and experience the Olympics. I never doubted I would be here, and everything worked out. We got what we came here for. Living in the Village was a thrill, meeting great sports stars like Kobe Bryant. We have to enjoy the moment. I'm super-happy and it's an experience I'll never forget."
The Argentine team had its share of stars and attracted autograph seekers wherever it went. Fifteen of the 18 players on the Argentine roster make a living in Europe, including Messi, Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid), Javier Mascherano (Liverpool), Fernando Gago (Real Madrid), and Di Maria (Benfica).
Though they are young, these Argentine players have established themselves as potential World Cup 2010 stars. Argentina's youth teams have shined in recent international tournaments, winning the 2005 and 2007 Under-20 World Cups, and this gold medal is just another sign that Argentina will have a very deep pool of talent when it comes time to choose its next World Cup team.
"We made history by winning two Olympics in a row, and I will treasure this medal more than the one from Athens," Mascherano said. "We have to keep trying to progress. The next World Cup is still a long way away. Just like 2004, a lot of those players had a chance to be on the World Cup team and these players will, too. It's up to the manager. As long as we keep winning, it's better for the coaches because they have more options when they are putting together a roster."
As for Nigeria, the Eagles go home disappointed. Though the Argentines maintained more control of the ball, Nigeria had a handful of excellent scoring chances. The best came in the 63rd minute, but Victor Obinna's shot was saved by goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Nigeria beat Argentina 3-2 in the 1996 Olympic final on a last-minute shot. Argentina claimed the goal shouldn't have counted because they felt the Nigerian player was offside. This time, there was no such drama.
"The difference between us and Argentina today is that they have the gold and we have the silver," said Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose. "I think we played better, and had more shots, but they took that one shot and it went in. That's football. All we can do is go home appreciating our silver medal."