Aussies stun 10-man Argentina at Tokyo Olympics as football shocks keep coming
23 July, 2021, 10:20 am
Argentina, Spain, Egypt. On paper, it looked like a classic group of death – but Graham Arnold, the Olyroos coach, insisted on calling it a “group of dreams” and vowed his team was ready to shock the world.
It was the sort of pre-tournament bluster many have come to expect from Arnold in recent years. But he might have actually been onto something.
Australia’s under-23 men delivered a seismic upset on their return to the Olympic stage with a famous 2-0 win over Argentina on Thursday night, which rocketed them to the top of group C.
Not even the most hopeful fan of Australian soccer would have expected much in Tokyo from a squad largely comprised of A-League players, a handful of unproven European-based prospects, and only one over-age player – especially given the calibre of teams they were drawn against.
To underline the perceived chasm in quality between the teams, the players in Argentina’s Olympic squad are valued by the leading football website TransferMarkt at a total of $215 million – compared to Australia’s $22 million.
But Lachie Wales’ first-half strike gave the Olyroos an unlikely early lead at the Sapporo Dome, and they were able to close it out – albeit with a little help from trigger-happy referee Srdan Jovanovic, who controversially reduced Argentina to 10 men for the second half by producing two yellow cards for the same player within two minutes.
Young gun Marco Tilio, fresh from winning an A-League title with Melbourne City, came off the bench to ice the result with a sensational long-distance goal in the 80th minute.
“I’ve been building the belief in the boys that they can do this,” Arnold said. “We are here to compete for a gold medal – we’re not just here to complete the numbers. No one would have given us a chance except for us.”
It is just the fifth time Australia’s men have won a football match at the Olympics and only the second time they’ve done so since the turn of the century.
It completely changes the team’s outlook in Tokyo and, potentially, the course of the careers of the players involved after a performance that is sure to catch the eye of club scouts around the world – especially from centre-backs Thomas Deng and Harry Souttar, who were impenetrable in the heart of defence.
Suddenly, things are looking rosy ahead of Saturday night’s clash with Spain, who were held to a goalless draw with Egypt earlier on Thursday – despite boasting a squad filled with some of the world’s best young talent, including a handful of players who recently featured at Euro 2020. Much like Argentina’s performance, it showed reputation only counts for so much.
So keen was Arnold to hammer home that very message, he actually banned his players from speaking the word “Argentina” in the days leading up to the game, in case it enhanced the team’s reputation in their own minds. It’s a tactic he mined from famed “coach whisperer” Bradley Charles Stubbs, who once encouraged Arnold to refer to Melbourne Victory as simply “Melbourne” during his days as Sydney FC coach.
“Sometimes when you mention a nation like Argentina’s name, everyone just starts thinking straight away [about] players [like] Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. They’re Copa America champions,” Arnold said.
“I’ve been visualising that performance for the last couple of weeks – I even visualised the score. I truly believe in these boys.
“A lot of football fans around Australia, I expect that we put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces – tonight anyway. It’s a great win but we’ve done nothing yet. Three points, off to a great start, but the most important thing now is improvement.”
The signs were positive from the outset for Australia, who jumped out of the gates and were rewarded for an energetic start with the opening goal in the 14th minute.
It came almost out of nowhere. The move began with a quick free kick inside Australia’s half, which was dispatched long down the left flank for Joel King. The Sydney FC defender sent in a low cross which was met by Wales, who held his nerve and swept the ball past Jeremias Ledesma with his left foot to give the Olyroos an unexpected lead.
Argentina dominated the remainder of the first half, but disaster struck for them just before the break when defender Francisco Ortega was given his marching orders after two cautions in quick succession.
The first was blatant, as Ortega took out a rampaging Nathaniel Atkinson as he threatened to send in a dangerous ball from the right. But as Australia set up for the resultant free kick, referee Jovanovic spotted Ortega tangled up with Riley McGree and somehow deemed it worthy of a second yellow card.
It appeared to be a routine attempt to check an attacker’s run, but while Ortega and his teammates protested the decision – and coach Nehuen Perez argued post-match that it changed the game – their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The South Americans came out firing in the second half but the Olyroos did well to contain them. Then, with 10 minutes to go, Tilio gave Australia permission to celebrate with a stunning curling shot from outside the box – just seconds after coming onto the field.