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SPORTS | 15-02-2024 15:38

Argentina dare to dream of Olympic gold – will Messi be there too?

Javier Masherano’s young side had to get to the Games in Paris first, and they did so in typically nail-biting fashion.

It is an image that makes any genuine sports fan salivate with anticipation. Lionel Messi, strutting out into the warm Parisian summer evening, leading Argentina's Olympic contingent as their flag-bearer and then placing the gold medal around his shoulders, another glorious moment in this dazzling twilight of his stunning football career. With any luck, that is exactly what will occur in July.

First, of course, Argentina had to get to the Games, and they did so in typically nail-biting fashion.

It was a qualifying campaign in which Javier Mascherano and his charges seemed to tumble though almost in spite of themselves. Late leads were squandered, late deficits were made up in the dying seconds, tactical and technical failings were papered over by endless reserves of grit and heart.

Luciano Gondou, for instance, was the Albiceleste's second top scorer behind captain Thiago Almada despite starting just twice in Venezuela, while first choice Santiago Castro netted just once in his six starts in the competition. Stars like Federico Redondo and Claudio Echeverri also spent much of the tournament clicking their heels on the bench, while on the field itself a variety of shocking errors at the back often left Argentina fighting for their lives.
But when it mattered most, the young lions came out roaring. Gondou's fourth goal of the competition, laid on by ex-Boca wonderkid Valentín Barco – another whose tournament was a roller-coaster of brilliant flashes of talent and near-meltdowns – led Argentina to a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Brazil, sending the latter out of the Games for good measure; and that dream of seeing Messi back once more as one of the three players over the age of 23 permitted in Paris remains very much alive.

“I am obliged to invited Messi and [Ángel] Di María,” an elated Mascherano, who once more came under intense scrutiny over the past month in Venezuela, told reporters after clinching qualification. “I have a spectacular relationship with Leo and Ángel, we are friends. But you understand that they have other commitments and it will depend on that, it is not so easy. Still, there is plenty of time to talk to them. Now we have to enjoy ourselves.”

In an ideal world Argentina would surely love to bolster their squad with those two veteran superstars, rounding out the over-age slots with Emiliano Martínez to give the team a truly formidable presence between the posts. Premier League duo Enzo Fernández and Alejandro Garnacho would also walk straight into his starting XI, while there are a host of other Europe-based youngsters which would give the Albiceleste perhaps the strongest team of any of the Olympic hopefuls on paper. In practice, though, as Mascherano hinted, it might not be that straightforward.

Unlike senior competitions such as the World Cup and Copa America, clubs are under no obligation to release their players for the Games, leaving it hanging purely on their own goodwill. The situation is further complicated by Argentina's defence of the Copa America itself, which ends with July 14's final – 10 days before the Olympic competition is scheduled to kick off.

It is unrealistic to expect any player to compete in both, meaning that the Argentina hierarchy will have to make some hard decisions this winter as they look to fight on two fronts. Every football romantic, though – and there are still a few of us out there – will be hoping Messi will be the man who can lead his nation as they file out in front of the Olympic torch, an honour few sportsmen and women on the planet deserve more than the little wizard from Rosario.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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