So near and yet so far. Argentina's Olympic Games Men's Football team on Wednesday joined the long and growing list of competitors to fall short in Tokyo, as a plucky draw against Spain proved insufficient to qualify from Group C ahead of the Europeans and Egypt. There was at least some cheer earlier that same day as the Pumas overcame Great Britain to take bronze in Rugby Sevens, the nation's first and, at the time of writing, only medal; but for coach Fernando Batista and his players the sensation lingers of a missed opportunity following a campaign that started on the wrong foot and never really gained momentum.
Wednesday's 1-1 tie, which ended with the Albiceleste pushing hard yet fruitlessly for a winner after Tomás Belmonte levelled with a late header, failed to remedy the effects of a disastrous opening to the Games, when Batista's charges sank without trace in a tame defeat at the hands of Australia. Victory over Egypt gave them a chance going into the last match, but Spain were always going to be a stiff challenge and ultimately kept the likes of Adolfo Gaich, Alexis Mac Allister and Ezequiel Barcos quiet enough to progress themselves with only that late scare to make them sweat.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is worth analysing the two nations, both among football's strongest international sides. For while Spain, bolstered by a local law which requires domestic clubs to release their players for the Olympics, had the luxury of picking such talents as Barcelona wonderkid Pedri and Real Madrid ace Marco Asensio to name just two, merely putting a squad together at all proved a daunting task for Argentina's selectors.
“We are going to the Olympic Games, I find it hard to understand why a player isn't being given the chance to put the national team shirt on,” an exasperated Batista sighed prior to travelling to Tokyo, as team after team shook their head at his requests. Both Boca Juniors and River Plate declined to release their players for the Games, as did numerous clubs from across the world. As a result, while Spain arrived in Japan with their star-studded squad and Brazil field the exceptional pair of Dani Alves and Richarlison, Argentina had to make do with the unheralded Cadiz goalkeeper Jeremias Ledesma – who was nevertheless one of their star performers in the last group game – as their sole over-24 player: a sorry state of affairs no matter how one looks at it.
“This was not a disappointment at all. I am angry and sad, but proud of the players who came here,” Batista explained following elimination. “We have to take it easy, this was a tournament which helped us to keep working as we have been doing. This should not change our path.”
Such results often open the gates for sensationalist post-mortems on the state of the game and its inevitably bleak future in Argentina. But the side's early exit should not be the cue for doom and gloom this time round. No less than nine of the Argentina squad which was triumphant in the Copa América, including three who started the final itself – Gonzalo Montiel, Cristian Romero and Lautaro Martínez – were eligible for Tokyo and might have featured were it not for their senior commitments this winter. The young talent in the next generation is out there, even if it was in short supply in Japan; and there were plenty of players even so who have a decent chance of making the jump to the first team after their exploits with this Under-23 side over the past three years under Batista, which included Panamericana Games gold in 2019. After the euphoria of watching Lionel Messi triumph in Brazil perhaps hopes of another medal were a bridge too far – but Argentina's football future nevertheless should be in safe hands.