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From 16 to Deja Vu: The Men's Football Tournament at the 2008 Olympics

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Argentina celebrates winning the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The South American nation won gold for the second straight Olympic tournament in football.

Argentina celebrates winning the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The South American nation won gold for the second straight Olympic tournament in football.

At the 2008 Summer Olympics, 16 nations arrived in China as each country attempted to win gold in the football tournament. Six cities and five stadia saw young stars emerge, and established veteran continue their exceptional footballing careers. Fifteen nations sought to dethrone reigning tournament champions Argentina. In the end, Argentina withstood all opposition and did the unthinkable.

The 2008 edition witnessed Argentina not only defend its Olympic gold medal from Athens, but it did in the same style fro four years earlier. Argentina won all six games in 2004; four years later, Argentina won all six games in 2008. The victory capped a golden period in which the nation also won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005 and 2007).

Aaron Scott of New Zealand (2) battles for the ball with China's  Zheng Zhi during a football match on Aug. 7, 2008 in the Summer Olympics. The match finished 1-1 in Shenyang, China.

Aaron Scott of New Zealand (2) battles for the ball with China's Zheng Zhi during a football match on Aug. 7, 2008 in the Summer Olympics. The match finished 1-1 in Shenyang, China.

Asian Nightmares and Kiwi Struggles

Asia was looking to emulate its feat from four summers ago in Athens when two representatives reached the knockout stages: South Korea and Iraq, with the latter finishing fourth in the tournament to become one of the notable stories of the 2004 Summer Olympics. This time around, no Asian country even qualified for the knockout stage.

As the hosts, China participated in only its second Olympic tournament, having first appeared in 1988 but failing to score a goal then. He was on China's U-20 squad in 2005 as well as China's 2007 Asian Cup squad; Dong Fangzhuo scored the tying goal against New Zealand to secure a 1-1 draw. China's first Olympic goal represented its lone goal of the tournament, and both Australia and Japan also saw this happen to them. Australia qualified for Beijing when Adrian Leijer scored the tying goal Pyongyang, North Korea, to pip Iraq of a place in the tournament. Australia was playing in its sixth consecutive Olympic tournament as it looked to improve on its quarterfinal appearance four years earlier.

Ruben Zadkovich opened the scoring in a 1-1 tie against Serbia, but Australia lost the next two games 1-0 and was out. Japan fared no better, and for the second consecutive Olympic tournament, Japan lost all three games in the competition. Yohei Toyoda provided the only goal for Japan against Nigeria.

South Korea also stumbled after appearing in the quarterfinals four years ago when they scored eight goals in four matches. A veteran of the 2006 World Cup, Park Chu-young scored the initial goal against Cameroon, but South Korea lost the next game 3-0. Kim Dong-jin scored against Honduras, but South Korea missed out on a quarterfinal berth.

With Australia moving to Asia in 2006, New Zealand seized its opportunity to represent Oceania at the Olympics for the first time. The nation scored 19 goals in winning all five games during qualifying in March 2008 at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Fiji, to qualify for its first Olympics. However, New Zealand went to the Olympics without its leading scorer Kosta Barbarouses, who scored four goals.

Jeremy Brockie scored New Zealand's first Olympic goal in the 53rd minute to put New Zealand up 1-0 against China. However, China's late goal derailed New Zealand in the tournament. The defense let New Zealand down as it allowed seven goals in the group stage en route to only one point from its three games.

Freddie Adu of the United States competes for the ball with the Netherlands' Urby Emanuelseon during a group stage match in Tianjin, China. The Netherlands and the United States played to a 2-2 draw, a result that proved costly for the United States.

Freddie Adu of the United States competes for the ball with the Netherlands' Urby Emanuelseon during a group stage match in Tianjin, China. The Netherlands and the United States played to a 2-2 draw, a result that proved costly for the United States.

Heartbreak and Misery for North America

CONCACAF's two representatives experienced contrasting emotions during the tournament. In Sydney eight years earlier, Honduras debuted in the Olympics and defeated the hosts Australia 2-1 in Sydney, but missed out on a quarterfinal berth. In 2008, Honduras needed a penalty shootout to beat Guatemala 6-5 following a scoreless draw before winning the final against the United States 1-0 in Nashville.

Unfortunately, Honduras endured a miserable stretch against Italy in its opening game. Honduras allowed two penalties and would suffer elimination after only two games. Despite respectable performances against Cameroon and South Korea, Honduras finished the tournament with three losses and no goals for the team.

The United States also last played in an Olympic tournament eight years ago, having finished in fourth place then. This time around, the United States featured as its captain Brian McBride, a three-time World Cup participant and a first-time Olympian. Also in the tournament was an 18-year old Jozy Altidore, along with Major League Soccer stars in Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty.

Stuart Holden got the United States to a bright start as his goal was the difference against Japan in Tianjin. Despite allowing an early goal against the Netherlands, the United States got two goals in the second half from Kljestan and Altidore in eight minutes. The United States had a quarterfinal berth as the match approached its climax until the Netherlands snatched a vital draw with a stoppage time goal.

Despite Kljestan's penalty late against Nigeria in its final match, the United States failed to stave off elimination and lost 2-1 to Nigeria.

Solomon Kalou (L), Sekou Cisse (C) and Gervinho (R) celebrate for the Ivory Coast following a goal by Gervinho late in its match against Serbia in Shanghai on Aug. 10, 2008. The Ivory Coast won 4-2

Solomon Kalou (L), Sekou Cisse (C) and Gervinho (R) celebrate for the Ivory Coast following a goal by Gervinho late in its match against Serbia in Shanghai on Aug. 10, 2008. The Ivory Coast won 4-2

African Pride Continues

The Olympics has allowed nations to field up to three players over 23 years old since 1996. Africa benefited the most with this rule, with past winners in Nigeria (1996) and Cameroon (2000). Côte d'Ivoire made its Olympic debut and had Salomon Kalou and captain Gervinho, both having represented Côte d'Ivoire during its fourth-place finish at the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Also on the squad was Sekou Cisse, who scored three goals in the 2010 World Cup qualifying. Côte d'Ivoire began its Olympic journey with a 2-1 loss to Argentina but improved against Serbia with Cisse opening the scoring three minutes into the match as Côte d'Ivoire won 4-2.

The trio of Cisse, Kalou, and Gervinho scored five of the six goals. Kalou had the most important goal as his goal nine minutes from time against Australia sent Côte d'Ivoire to the quarterfinals, where they would lose to Nigeria 2-0. Côte d'Ivoire finished with the tournament's best disciplinary record and the Fair Play Award.

Nigeria looked to win the tournament for the first time since 1996, under the captaincy of Isaac Promise. Nigeria's star, however, was Peter Odemwingie, a Russian-born player who had previously represented Nigeria at three African Cup of Nations (2004, 2006, 2008).

After a scoreless draw in its opening match, Nigeria won a pair of 2-1 victories over Japan and the United States to win its group before Odemwingie scored the first goal in the quarterfinal against Ivory Coast. The second goal in that quarterfinal came from Victor Obinna, which was his third goal of the tournament. Nigeria then defeated Belgium 4-1, with Chinedu Obasi scoring twice, as Nigeria would finish as silver medalists.

Cameroon scored only two goals in the group stage. Georges Madjeck scored Cameroon's tying goal against Italy, while veteran Stephane Mbia provided the crucial goal. Having scored two goals against Tunisia in a 3-2 victory in a quarterfinal of the 2008 African Cup of Nations, Mbia scored the only goal in the 74th minute against Honduras to win 1-0 in Qinhuangdao. A scoreless stalemate against Italy proved enough for Cameroon to reach the quarterfinals before losing a brave battle against Brazil 2-0 in extra time.

Four European Nations, Zero Medals

Italy won a bronze medal at the 2004 tournament in Athens, the nation's first Olympic football medal since 1936. However, Italy needed a penalty shootout victory to return to the tournament; this came via a playoff against Portugal in Nijmegen's De Goffert Stadium at the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championships. The necessitated playoff was a result of England, a nation that does not compete independently in the Olympics, finishing as a semifinalist at the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championships.

Italy impressed in the group stages, notching two 3-0 victories over Honduras and South Korea as the nation did not allow a goal in the group stage. Giuseppe Rossi finished as the tournament's leading scorer with four goals. However, Italy would not medal in the competition as Belgium knocked out Italy with a 3-2 victory in the quarterfinals at Beijing's Workers Stadium.

Belgium was the surprise qualifier of the Olympics, having last appeared 80 years ago as it drew 2-2 with the hosts Netherlands in Heerenveen. Belgium lost to Brazil 1-0 but defeated China and New Zealand to reach the quarterfinals. Italy got two penalty kicks from Rossi, but Moussa Dembele scored two goals as well. His second goal put Belgium in a chance to win its first medal in football since obtaining the gold back in 1920. Belgium crashed in losing 4-1 to Nigeria and 3-0 to Brazil. Belgium missed out on a medal, but its performance helped spark a new generation rivaling that of Belgium's teams from the 1980s. Players like Dembele, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, and Thomas Vermaelen helped Belgium on the senior level.

Of the four European nations, the Netherlands looked poised to go far, having won consecutive UEFA U-21 Championships in 2006 and 2007, the latter aided by a monumental semifinal against England in which the Netherlands won 13-12 penalty shootout victory after a 1-1 draw. That 2007 team featured vital players, including the tournament's Golden Player Royston Drenthe, Gianni Zuiverloon, Otman Bakkel, Maceo Ritgers, and Ryan Babel. The Netherlands, bronze medalists at the first three Olympic football tournaments, last played an Olympic football tournament in 1952. Along with these players was a member of squads at Euro 2000 and Euro 2004: Roy Makaay, the captain. Makaay was one of the three overage players, along with 2006 World Cup participants Kew Jaliens and Gerald Sibon. After a scoreless opening game against Nigeria, the Netherlands were on the brink of elimination after trailing 2-1 to the United States. Sibon scored a 93rd-minute goal to salvage a 2-2 draw. Sibon followed that up with a penalty against Japan to reach the quarterfinals. The Netherlands had won its first Olympic game since July 26, 1948, and its reward was a quarterfinal against Argentina. At the senior level, these two nations often fight bravely, and it was no exception in the Olympics. However, the Netherlands came up short in extra time as Argentina won 2-1.

Europe's first qualifier for the Olympics was Serbia, finalists from the U-21 Championship. Serbia reached the tournament thanks to its defense, with future Branislav Ivanovic and Alexander Kolarov leading the way. Serbia's goalkeeper was Vladimir Stojkovic; he was a backup for Serbia and Montenegro during the 2006 World Cup. Dejan Milovanovic represented Serbia and Montenegro four years earlier, in which the country allowed 14 goals in three matches. Serbia looked to reach the quarterfinals after Slobodan Rajkovic scored the tying goal against Australia. However, Rajkovic scored a go-ahead own goal against Côte d'Ivoire, and Serbia never recovered in losing 4-2 to Côte d'Ivoire and 2-0 to Argentina.

Brazil's Ronaldinho (10) and Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen in action during the teams' bronze medal match on Aug, 22. 2008. Brazil defeated Belgium twice, including a 3-0 result to win the bronze medal.

Brazil's Ronaldinho (10) and Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen in action during the teams' bronze medal match on Aug, 22. 2008. Brazil defeated Belgium twice, including a 3-0 result to win the bronze medal.

Javier Mascherano celebrates as Argentina wins the gold medal. Mascherano also won gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Javier Mascherano celebrates as Argentina wins the gold medal. Mascherano also won gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Brazil Left to Rue with Argentina Deja Vu

In the end, the 2008 Olympic tournament came down to two South American representatives receiving medals. Brazil would remain in search of its first Olympic gold medal in this event (until 2016), while Argentina backed up its 2004 title defense in style. After winning the 2007 South America Youth Championship in Asuncion, Paraguay, Brazil had a team that was looking to win gold at an Olympic tournament in soccer, the nation's only elusive prize.

After three games and a close quarterfinal, Brazil looked on course to do so, especially not allowing a goal that they had yet to give up a goal in their first four matches. Then came Argentina, who was looking to make history. Argentina not only won the Olympic tournament four years ago but also won the 2005 and 2007 FIFA U-23 World Cups. Among the players responsible included Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero. Argentina also opted for experience in Juan Roman Riquelme, who played in the 2005 Confederations Cup and 2006 World Cup.
Amazing, Argentina only qualified for the Olympics on a late goal by Lautaro Acosta against Uruguay. However, Argentina defeated Brazil 3-0. Agüero scored twice in the match while Riquelme added a penalty. Brazil had to settle for bronze after goals from Jo sealed a 3-0 victory against Belgium.

Earlier in the tournament, he missed two penalty kicks against Serbia. However, Angel Di Maria atoned for the mistakes. His extra time goal against the Netherlands sent Argentina into the semifinals. Then, his lone goal against Nigeria gave Argentina a 12th-consecutive victory and a second straight gold medal.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Antonio Martinez