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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Argentina rise to non-occasion
By Andrew Fraser
BBC Sport in Athens

Argentina celebrate their men's football Olympic title
Argentina celebrate - but the sparse crowd have gone home
Argentina's footballers sank to their knees in pure delight after ending 11 years of hurt in major competitions by taking Olympic gold.

But you can be sure that if they had been allowed to choose the setting for their historic triumph, it would not have been a half-empty stadium at 10 o'clock in the morning.

While millions of fans in Argentina and Paraguay tuned in to watch the first Olympic final between South American nations for 76 years, most of Athens was having a Saturday morning lie-in.

Not even pleas from Fifa president Sepp Blatter and Greek Football Association chief Vassilis Gagatsis to fill the stadium could pull in the punters.

It might have been different if the home nation had not suffered an early exit from the competition, or if Iraq had not lost to Paraguay in the semi-finals.

It's like asking someone to work from two to four in the morning
Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa on the early kick-off

But large chunks of empty seats and a noise level that rarely rose above a low hum were testament to the harsh truth that, at the Olympics, the 'people's game' is just another sport.

An evening kick-off would certainly have helped, as it did in Sydney four years ago.

With the climax of the athletics programme set for Saturday evening, however, the game was sandwiched into the only available slot at the Olympic stadium.

"It wasn't a natural time to play," admitted Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa.

"It's like asking a worker to break his natural routine and work from two to four in the morning."

The build-up to the Games had been marred by an unseemly row between Fifa and the World Anti-doping Agency, which at one point threatened to see the football competition called off.

In the end there was an uneasy truce as Fifa signed up to the Wada code, still indicating that it would follow its own interpretation of the rules.

When the tournament began, the expected wave of post-Euro 2004 enthusiasm failed to materialise.

ARGENTINA'S 2004 OLYMPICS
Argentina celebrate victory at the 2004 Olympics
Played: 6
Won: 6
Goals scored: 17
Goals against: 0

"At some matches, I could have shaken the hand of everyone in the stadium," said Blatter.

There was no shortage of talent on display, with European club managers like Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson left fuming at having to do without stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabriel Heinze.

Bielsa took most of his Copa America squad to the Games, including Heinze and Valencia's Roberto Ayala, in a bid to make up for the disappointment of losing to Brazil in the final last month.

It paid off as his side took their first football gold courtesy of a first-half goal from Boca Juniors sensation Carlos Tevez.

The striker's eighth goal of the campaign was enough to deny Paraguay, who had stunned Brazil in qualifying to book their ticket to Athens.

The runners-up ended up with just nine men on the field, after Emilio Martinez and Diego Figueredo were sent off in the second half.

And by the time they stood on the podium to receive Paraguay's first ever Olympic medal, most of the crowd had drifted away, no doubt looking forward to an evening of athletics.





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