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SPORTS | 19-01-2024 11:34

Argentina’s Olympian ambitions put pressure on Mascherano

Javier Masherano’s Argentina U23 team begin the road to potential Olympic glory on Sunday when the side takes on Paraguay

It is fair to say that Javier Mascherano did not enjoy the best of fortunes over 2023. The Argentina coach will be hoping the new year brings him better luck, as he fixes his gaze firmly towards Paris and one of sport's most prestigious prizes.

True, the Olympic Games football competition does not quite hold the same cachet as a World Cup. But in spite of the strict age limit the gold medal is a precious prize, particularly in South America, where stars like Brazil icon Neymar and Argentina's own Lionel Messi value their triumphs right up there with the biggest titles they have harvested with club and country over the years.

Before dreaming of glory next winter in the City of Lights, however, Argentina first have to get there, and that is where Mascherano comes in.
His Argentina U23 team begin their campaign in the CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament on Sunday, when the Albiceleste facen Paraguay in their first game of Group B. Two teams will advance from that first stage to the final group round, from which the best two will eventually claim the right to represent their nation at the Games. 

Since winning gold in 2008, inspired by the twin virtuoso talents of Messi and Juan Román Riquelme, Argentina have not once played in the Olympic knockout stages, raising the pressure on this new crop of youngsters.

Mascherano has added incentive to impress: his U20s crashed out of the South American Championship in ignominious fashion last year, failing to qualify for the World Cup; then, after receiving an unexpected lifeline when FIFA awarded Argentina that tournament at the last minute, he could not guide a talented side past the last 16. 

Falling short again would be another black mark against his budding coaching career, particularly when compared to the thrilling exploits of Diego Placente's U17s during their trip to the World Cup semi-finals in November, which included a 3-0 thrashing of Brazil masterminded by hat-trick hero and new Manchester City signing Claudio Echeverri.

The teenager will now have the chance to do it all over again. His late inclusion in the U23 squad due to an injury to Pedro de la Vega came as a surprise, and further irked River Plate fans already seething over the manner of his imminent departure from the Monumental. But it is clear that even six years the junior of many of his new team-mates and upcoming rivals, Echeverri has the talent and devil-may-care attitude to take the Olympic qualifiers by storm.

He will not be alone, either. Argentina will also boast in their ranks a World Cup winner in the shape of Thiago Almada, four young Boca stars who were crucial in the Xeneize's journey to the Copa Libertadores final in 2023 – Cristian Medina, Nicolás Valentini, Ezequiel Fernández and Brighton-bound Valentín Barco – and Fernando Redondo's wonderfully gifted midfielder son Federico, one of the bright points of the U20 World Cup. 

The Albiceleste will be a man short, though, as defender Julián Malatini was withdrawn by new employers Werder Bremen after the squad deadline had passed, leaving Mascherano without the opportunity to call up a replacement and leaving him with 22 players in the Venezuela-based tournament.

The next month, then, will be a fascinating showcase for Argentina's young stars, not to mention for the rest of the continent; should they reach the final round, the clash between the Albiceleste's Boca contingent and Fluminense's Libertadores hero John Kennedy will be unmissable. But it is also an acid test for a nation which has underachieved on the Olympic stage for more than a decade and a half, and a coach who is yet to convince his detractors he has what it takes to excel on the bench. 

The stakes are higher than ever going into a Games, giving these qualifiers a further edge as Echeverri and his team-mates take the first step in their quest to emulate the likes of Messi and Román and bring home much-desired gold.
 

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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