5 Thoughts after Argentina-Nigeria
BEIJING -- Five thoughts after Argentina's gold-medal-winning 1-0 win over Nigeria in men's soccer:
Lionel Messi may already be the world's best player, but by World Cup 2010 there won't be any doubt. Messi, Argentina's wondrous 21-year-old heir to Diego Maradona, was the Man of the Match again, as the Albiceleste won its second straight gold medal in men's soccer. Messi's majestic through-ball sprang Angel di Maria down the left side for the game-winning goal, and the Flea was dangerous all day in the sweltering 90-degree heat. You could have a great bar-room debate right now over who's the world's best soccer player: Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? And while I'd give the nod for now to Ronaldo by a hair (he is the best player on the Champions League and Premier League titleists, whereas Messi's Barcelona struggled last season), I think there's little doubt that Messi will have undisputed WBP status by the start of the next World Cup. Messi is a little genius in the attacking third, but he's also an absolute bull who's extremely hard to knock off the ball. For good measure, Messi even made a huge defensive play in the 90th minute to strip the ball on one of Nigeria's last attacks.
Nigeria had its chances. After some down years at the senior level that included missing the 2006 World Cup entirely, this Nigerian Olympic team restored some pride to the Super Eagles and set the stage for a statement-making performance in World Cup 2010 (the first one to be held in Africa). Olympic soccer is often a bellwether for success in the subsequent World Cup, and this Nigeria outfit attacked with speed, skill and strength from just about every part of the field. (The Nigerians were well-organized in the back, too.) Even after Argentina went up 1-0 in the 58th minute, Nigeria kept threatening and was on the doorstep several times through Ebenezer Ajilore, Victor Anichebe, Peter Odemwingie and the Columbus Crew's own Emmanuel Ekpo. I'll go ahead and predict it right now: Nigeria will make it to the World Cup quarterfinals (and perhaps beyond) in South Africa, as long as it doesn't get hampered by a horrific draw.
Brazilian soccer must be cursed at the Olympics. The world's greatest soccer nation has still never won an Olympic gold medal, a stunning fact that neither Brazil's Ronaldinho-led men's team nor its Marta-led women's team could change in 2008. Brazil clearly takes Olympic soccer seriously, judging by the talent on its rosters, but there's just something that's missing. Most observers expected that Brazilian archrival Argentina would repeat as Olympic men's champion -- a result that no doubt sticks in the craw of Brazilian fans, whose team fell 3-0 to the Argentines in the semis -- but the Brazilian women were big favorites to beat the U.S. and couldn't produce when it counted, either. This is one of those times when a bronze medal (for Brazil's men) and a silver (for the women) cause an entire country to shake its head in amazement.
There might be a riot inside a Beijing club on Sunday night. When I spoke to Kobe Bryant on Thursday, he said he had spoken to David Beckham the night before and had arranged to hook up in Beijing after the Closing Ceremony on Sunday (in which Beckham is appearing as a face of the 2010 Olympics in London). Given how ridiculously popular Bryant and Beckham are in China, any public appearance of the two together might unhinge this entire city. For his part, Bryant has been following soccer (one of his favorite sports) closely in Beijing, attending at least three different games. When he went to the Brazil-Argentina men's semifinal he even sat in the common-man seats instead of the VIP section. "I didn't want to sit in the VIP section. I wanted to sit with the crazies," Bryant said. "It was awesome. Awesome. I had a chance to just be a fan."
Through-balls: What would you give to see a competitive game between the full senior squads of Spain and Argentina right now? Can't we find a way to make this happen at some point in the next year? ... The U.S. men's team shouldn't be looking for moral victories at this point, but it is worthwhile to point out that in the knockout rounds Argentina struggled to beat both the Netherlands and Nigeria -- two teams that the U.S. played toe-to-toe with in the group stage ... Separated at birth: Argentina's Fernando Gago and Lord of the Rings actor Orlando Bloom. Gago's new handle ought to be Legolas ... I know it was hot out there in the men's final, but what was up with the group water-breaks that stopped the action in the middle of both halves on Saturday? ... Chinese folks pronounce Javier Mascherano's surname MASS-er-a-no, the 48th different pronunciation I've heard for the guy. Time to get it right, folks:It's Mass-cher-AH-no. You'll be using it a lot over the next few years ... Lots of yellow cards for time-wasting in this Olympic tournament. I kept waiting for someone to pick up two and get tossed from a game, but it never happened. Does anyone know if such a thing has ever occurred?