I'll admit that I've enjoyed the Olympics more than I expected. Going in, I assumed that NBC would ruin the Olympics by hausfrau-izing them. I was also thinking that the Olympics are second-rate as compared to the World Cup, the Euros, and other international footie competitions because countries actually care who wins and loses those tournaments. There were no celebrations in the streets when Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal. The Olympics, like the NFL, represent forced excitement without a soul.
I still think that, but I have enjoyed my individually packaged, plastic wrapped excitement. The swimming caught my attention, as did the totally phenomenal Usain Bolt. (If anyone deserves to be cocky, it's the fastest man in history.) The USA Hoops team has been fun to watch, certainly more so than the pouty, selfish team of four years ago. More than anything else, I've been enjoying the soccer and that enjoyment was leading to a crescendo last night with the Brazil-Argentina match. Brazil have never won an Olympic gold medal in football. This is the only empty spot in their trophy case. Additionally, football at the Olympics is a bigger deal for South American countries because the powers of the continent announced their supremacy in world football by winning Olympic gold in 1924 and 1928. The fact that Brazil and Argentina produce so much young talent probably doesn't hurt their interest in a U-23 tournament, either. You add that context to the fact that Brazil and Argentina are bitter rivals and yesterday's game was shaping up to be a highlight of the Olympics...
Or at least it would have been a highlight if Brazil played like Brazil instead of a second-rate Ireland. To paraphrase Fat Bastard, Brazil were crap. They barely created a good chance in the entire match. True to their recent traditions, the only offense came from the wing backs, specifically Rafinha on the right flank. They don't bother to create any offense in the middle of the park. It's one thing for Brazil not to have a player like Riquelme who can spray perfect passes around; it's another thing for Brazil to not have a player like Fernando Gago, a decent, but not inspirational central midfielder.
We covered this topic last summer when Brazil were looking pedestrian at the Copa America. Oddly, Brazil ended up winning the tournament despite the fact that they never looked very good. At the time, I discussed an outstanding article by Tim Vickery regarding Brazil and Argentina's response to Total Football. The post-script to the article should have been that Brazil bringing home the Copa America title against the run of play was a bad development for Brazil long-term because it delayed the country's reckoning of its own shortcomings. It pushed back the point at which Brazil will look at itself and decide to play like Brazil are supposed to play. Hopefully, a 3-0 hammering by Argentina at the Olympics, combined with a precarious position in World Cup qualifying, will push Brazil to that point. They can start by giving Dunga a pink slip.
And while we're on the subject of Brazil in decline, a word about Ronaldinho. Unfit. Ronnie still has the passing ability and the tricks with the ball, but it's kinda hard to be a top-level footballer when you don't run. He was absent from the game because he never moved. If Ronnie's poor performance at the 2006 World Cup is what started his decline (the Vickery theory), then this showing certainly won't help.
The disparity between Barcelona's present (Messi) and its past (Ronnie) was striking. Ronnie never moved, never linked up with Brazil's left back, and never chased the ball. Messi was chasing the ball from start to finish. His run created the space for the opener, his work in the box set up the second, and then his pass put Aguero in position to draw a penalty for the third. It was an outstanding performance, even though Messi didn't have a goal or an assist. Barcelona fought tooth and nail to prevent Messi from going to the Olympics, but the club is now one game away from a perfect result: Messi returning in form with a gold medal (to go with Xavi's, Iniesta's, and Puyol's medals from the Euros) while the club is virtually qualified for the group stage of the Champions League and perfect in its preseason record.