Looking back, the 2008 Olympic men’s football tournament was the strongest in the history of the Games.
Vincent Kompany led the first fledgelings of Belgium’s golden generation, including Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele, to fourth place.
And there was the usual collection of past, present and future Premier League stalwarts; Alex Song, Ryan Babel, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, Peter Odemwingie, Jozy Altidore, Ryan Nelsen, Giuseppe Rossi and Lee Chung-yong.
But two teams stood above all others; Argentina and Brazil.
Having yet to win Olympic gold, Brazil took a stacked squad out to China. Thiago Silva and pre-afro Marcelo were in defence, while Anderson, Lucas Levia and Alexandre Pato acted as butlers and servants to the horizontal, grape-eating Ronaldinho.
Yet, that was still nothing compared to Argentina. Their 2008 squad was simply ridiculous: Pablo Zabaleta, Ever Banega, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Juan Roman Riquelme, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero all travelled to Beijing in a singular show of strength.
And, if their opponents didn’t simply forfeit the game in the tunnel, Argentina also had a 21-year-old Lionel Messi in their ranks. Cripes.
Messi had become a regular in the Barcelona side and scored 16 goals in all competitions in the 2007-08 campaign ahead of the Games. Barca initially banned him from the tournament, but new boss Pep Guardiola forced the club to overturn their decision and earnt Messi’s undying devotion in the process.
The pint-sized genius scored the opening goal in the first game against Ivory Coast, notched one and assisted the other in the quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, before providing the all-important assist for Di Maria’s winner in the final against Nigeria.
But his standout performance came against arch-rivals Brazil in a semi-final that made football fans worldwide salivate.
Brazil entered the match as favourites, having won all four of their previous matches without conceding a goal, but they were dismantled like an Ikea flatpack by Messi and Argentina.
Barcelona’s great hope troubled the Brazil defence early with a string of blood-twisting dribbles, though they held firm and the game remained level at half-time.
Aguero broke the deadlock on 52 minutes, to the delight of the 53,000 inside the Beijing Worker’s Stadium, and then added a second not long later as Messi helped prise open the opposition defence.
Messi played a key role in the creation of the third goal too, feeding Aguero who was brought down in the area. Riquelme thumped the spot-kick home to complete Brazil’s humiliation.
Lionel Messi with Argentina is 😁
Lionel Messi at Beijing 2008 was 🔥
Lionel Messi 🆚 Ronaldinho is 😍
— Olympic Khel (@OlympicKhel) March 25, 2022
“The Olympic gold in 2008 is the win that I value the most because it is a tournament that you may play only once in your life and involves many athletes from different disciplines,” Messi said during a 2017 interview with Spanish Esquire.
And, in another interview with ESPN, the gold medal winner said: “It was a spectacular experience for me to play in the Olympics, not just because we won, but for the experience I gained.
“It was a great experience to stay in the Olympic Village and meet other elite athletes from other sports and to be just another athlete among them.
“That was very spectacular even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in the village. The World Cup is great but the Olympics are something special.”
And it was his sole international trophy for 13 years, until victory in the 2021 Copa America and 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
For Ronaldinho, the thrashing in Beijing was another signifier of the changing of the guard. Perhaps the world’s best footballer between 2004 and the start of Germany 2006, Ronaldinho had been sold by Barcelona just a month before the Games.
The Brazil forward joined AC Milan amid reports that Guardiola disliked his, erm, alleged, party lifestyle.
But, in a later interview, the World Cup winner said: “We didn’t even work together but he was always my friend, because I’m a very good friend of his brother Pere.
“At the time Pep wanted me to stay, but I had already taken the decision to seek new challenges.”
But Ronaldinho would never regain his status as one of the world’s best. In his absence, Barcelona won every trophy on offer in 2008-09 and Guardiola’s side, based around Messi, would become known as one the greatest club sides of all-time.
And the first glimpses of Messi and Barcelona’s imperial phase could be glimpsed in the Chinese capital.
In the most stacked Olympic field of them all, Messi stood above everybody else. Especially Ronaldinho.
By Michael Lee