Four years after their first triumph at the summer games in Athens in 2004, the Albiceleste sent a truly formidable squad to defend their title in 2008. Argentina’s Beijing Olympic roster was verging on the ridiculous as the young Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria all took part alongside comparatively older heads such as Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Mascherano.
As per Olympic selection rules, each nation had to submit a squad of 18 players under the age of 23, with a maximum of three “over-age” players, plus an optional 19th slot for an extra goalkeeper if required.
As such, Argentina coach Sergio Batista selected a 19-man group for the competition, with a single goal from Di Maria in the final at the National Stadium (also known as the “Bird’s Nest”) in Beijing enough to secure back-to-back gold medals.
Where are all the members of that victorious squad now? Well, it’s funny you should ask…
GK: Oscar Ustari
A promising talent at the time who won the FIFA U-20 World Cup alongside Aguero and close friend Messi in 2005, Ustari began the Olympic campaign as first-choice for Argentina but a nasty cruciate ligament injury suffered against Netherlands in the quarterfinals cruelly robbed him of a place in the rest of the tournament and the next eight months of his career. “Osky” eventually returned but injury woes continued to blight the next few years, eventually seeing his tenure with Getafe come to an abrupt end in 2012 after a second cruciate rupture led to another extended layoff. After stints with Boca Juniors, Newell’s Old Boys and — somewhat bizarrely — Sunderland, the 35-year-old is now playing for Pachuca in the Mexican top flight.
Club: AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands
Romero took over as first-choice following Ustari’s injury and didn’t look back, becoming the most-capped goalkeeper in Argentina’s history. Over the course of his record 96 international appearances, Romero has played at two World Cups (2010 and 2014) and three Copa Americas (2011, 2015 and 2016). Across those tournaments he played in three finals, but lost all of them despite not conceding a goal in the initial 90 minutes in any of them. He missed out on the 2018 World Cup through injury, although it was coach Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to drop him. Prior to his release this summer, the 34-year-old spent six seasons at Manchester United where he provided solid back-up for David De Gea while winning an FA Cup and the Europa League.
GK: Nicolas Navarro
Navarro wasn’t part of the original squad but was called in as a reserve during the Olympics due to Ustari’s injury. The 36-year-old had been plying his trade in Argentina with Arsenal de Sarandi until this week, when he announced his retirement from a career that also included spells in Turkey and Mexico.
DF: Ezequiel Garay
Club: Real Madrid, Spain
The talented centre-back had only just signed for Real when he was called up to Argentina’s Olympic squad, but then subsequently struggled to make much progress upon his return to the Bernabeu. Spells with Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg and Valencia followed but a stream of injuries hampered Garay’s career. Aged just 34, the defender announced his retirement from professional football earlier this month after being without a club for a full year, stating that he would feel “dishonest” about taking a wage when he was barely ever fit.
DF: Fabian Monzon
Club: Boca Juniors, Argentina
The left-back made the leap to European football shortly after winning gold at the 2008 Olympics by signing for Real Betis on a season-long loan from Boca. Monzon went on to play for Nice and Lyon in France, then Catania in Italy before returning to South America with Chilean side Universidad. The 34-year-old defender has since moved back to Argentina, where he is still playing for Primera Division outfit Club Atletico Tucuman.
DF: Pablo Zabaleta
Club: Espanyol, Spain
Zabaleta signed for Manchester City directly after the 2008 Olympics, making his debut the month after winning gold with Argentina. In the nine years that followed, the right-back played an integral part in City’s transformation from Premier League also-rans to heavyweight contenders, winning two league titles and proving to be a popular figure among fans. The defender then spent three seasons at West Ham before retiring from football altogether after 18 years in October 2020.
Club: Sevilla, Spain
After establishing himself at Sevilla, Fazio moved to the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur in 2014. Fazio started as he meant to go on at Spurs by getting sent off on his league debut (for a foul on compatriot Sergio Aguero) in a 4-1 defeat against Manchester City. The centre-back endured a tough time in London and his Spurs career gradually petered out with successive loans — first back to Sevilla and then to Roma, for whom he signed on a permanent basis in 2017 and reinvigorated his career.
DF: Nicolas Pareja
Club: Anderlecht, Belgium
Pareja only ever won one senior cap with the Argentina national side, but his club career was altogether more impressive. After playing around Europe with Espanyol and Spartak Moscow, the centre-back was at Sevilla as the Spanish side won two of their three consecutive Europa League titles between 2014 and 2016. Now aged 37, Pareja has since retired.
MF: Fernando Gago
Club: Real Madrid, Spain
Once the crown prince of deep-lying midfielders, Gago saw what was supposed to be a glittering career scuttled by regular injury issues. He mustered fewer than 40 appearances between 2016 and 2019. Similar problems stymied spells with Roma and Valencia before he returned home with Boca Juniors in 2013. Gago rejoined Velez Sarsfield for the 2019-20 season before bowing out from football aged 34 the following summer, just a few weeks after Zabaleta had also announced his retirement. In January, he moved into coaching, taking charge of Argentine top-flight club Aldosivi.
MF: Ever Banega
Club: Valencia, Spain
Banega had been at Valencia for just six months before being selected as part of Argentina’s 2008 Olympic squad. The youngster went on to become one of the most sought-after combative midfielders in Europe, playing for Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Sevilla — where he won a hat trick of Europa Leagues. These days, the 33-year-old can be found playing in the Saudi Arabian top flight with Al-Shabab.
MF: Javier Mascherano
Mascherano was already one of the most experienced members of the squad by the time the 2008 Olympics rolled around. After all, this was a guy who made his senior international debut as a 19-year-old before playing a single minute of first-team club football. Following spells in England with West Ham and Liverpool, the utility man went on to become one of the most decorated players in the world at Barcelona, winning 19 trophies in his eight years there. Mascherano then saw out his long and distinguished career at Hebei China Fortune and Estudiantes before retiring in 2020, and hung up his boots as Argentina’s second most-capped player with 147 senior appearances.
MF: Juan Roman Riquelme
Club: Boca Juniors, Argentina
The oldest member of the squad, Boca legend Riquelme served as elder statesman and captain for Argentina in Beijing. The silky playmaker scored a penalty in the 3-0 win over Brazil in the semis — a goal which proved to be his last for the national side. He retired from international duty two months after the gold medal match. Riquelme played on at club level until January 2015 before deciding to call it quits at the age of 36, despite mulling over a lucrative short-term contract offer from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno. “I have decided to no longer play football,” he said at the time. “Now I am just a fan. I will go and suffer in the stadium.” Riquelme is now back in the game in an official capacity, as vice-president at Boca.
Sosa has had a nomadic career since his involvement in the 2008 Olympics, playing for Bayern, Napoli, Metalist Kharkiv, Atletico Madrid, Besiktas, AC Milan and Trabzonspor. Aged 36, he’s still going strong in Turkey having signed for Fenerbache in 2020.
MF: Diego Buonanotte
Club: River Plate, Argentina
Buonanotte only made one appearance at the 2008 Olympics but he did mark it by scoring a superb long-range free kick against Serbia in Argentina’s third group-stage game. Unfortunately, a terrible tragedy befell the winger in December 2009 when he was the sole survivor of a fatal car crash in Argentina. He was able to return to the pitch and is still playing with Chilean club Universidad Catolica at the age of 33.
FW: Angel Di Maria
Club: Benfica, Portugal
That young, wispy lad is now a much older, wispy veteran, but Di Maria has more than proved his worth for Argentina over the years. Having been the match-winner in the 2008 gold medal match, the 33-year-old winger repeated the feat in 2021 by scoring the only goal in the Copa America final against Brazil — therefore securing his country’s first major international tournament honours for 28 years. At club level, he capped off his four years at Real Madrid by being named Man of the Match in their 2014 Champions League final victory, sealing the club’s longed-for 10th European crown – “La Decima.” A £60m move to Manchester United that summer lasted just one year, before he joined Paris Saint-Germain where he has won 17 trophies to date and reached the 2020 Champions League final.
FW: Ezequiel Lavezzi
Club: Napoli. Italy
As one of the most coveted attacking talents in Europe, Lavezzi left Napoli in 2012 to join PSG, who were flush with cash and seeking to transform themselves into a major force. The Argentine, who arrived in Paris in the same transfer window as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, lasted three-and-a-half seasons in Ligue 1 before moving to the Chinese Super League with Hebei China Fortune in 2016, becoming the highest-paid footballer on the planet in the process before retiring in 2019.
FW: Lautaro Atacosta
Club: Sevilla, Spain
After breaking out as a teenage sensation at boyhood club Lanus, Acosta moved to Europe with Sevilla in 2008 only to get sidelined by a serious injury almost immediately. Loans at Racing Santander and Boca Juniors followed but all that early promise never quite came to fruition, and Acosta returned home to Lanus in 2013. Now aged 33, he’s still on the books at the Primera Division side though made just 13 appearances last season, scoring once.
FW: Sergio Aguero
Club: Atletico Madrid, Spain
After forging his reputation at Atletico in the three years that followed the 2008 Olympics, Aguero decided to join Manchester City in a bid to take the next step. What followed was a decade of spectacular success as the club won five Premier League titles, fuelled in part by Aguero’s prolific finishing. His stoppage-time goal on the final day of the 2011-12 season to land City their first Premier League title remains one of the English game’s most iconic moments. All in all, Aguero found the net 260 times for City, becoming the club’s all-time record goal scorer. After finishing as a runner-up to Chelsea in the 2020-21 Champions League final, the 33-year-old signed as a free agent for Barcelona.
FW: Lionel Messi
Club: Barcelona, Spain
If Barca had their way, Messi wouldn’t have taken part in the 2008 Olympics at all with the club adamant they didn’t want their young star missing out on preseason training in order to travel to China. In fact, it was new head coach Pep Guardiola who eventually pushed for Messi to take part in the Games, in the interest of allowing the player to gain experience and keep him happy.
“He [Guardiola] was the one who gave me the permission,” Messi recalled during an interview with Estudio Futbol in 2019. “I remember that we were in the preseason in Italy and after a friendly match against Fiorentina, he grabbed me and said: ‘You want to go, don’t you?’ I said, ‘yes,’ and he replied: ‘Well, I’ll give you permission and the only condition is that someone from the club will accompany you and follow you everywhere.’ I told him that that wasn’t a problem, as long as I could go!”
Messi scored Argentina’s first goal of the competition in a 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast in their opening group game, before notching a second against Netherlands in the quarters. He then went on to win the first of his six Ballon d’Ors the following year after helping Barcelona to win a Treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles. Still at Barcelona all these years later, Messi has won 34 trophies at club level and this summer captained his national team to their Copa America triumph.
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