Football superstar Lionel Messi rewarded Argentina in gold for fighting for his right to be at the Olympics when he set up the winning goal in their 1-0 triumph over Nigeria in the men’s final on Saturday.
In a match played in a sizzling 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F) inside the Bird’s Nest, Messi disentangled himself from Nigeria’s tight marking to put Angel Di Maria clear early in the second half.
The Benfica player obliged by chipping over advancing goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin for the game’s only goal.
“All I could think was, thank God it went over the line,” Di Maria said.
On the penultimate day of the Beijing Olympics the football final was staged in the midday heat so the ground could be prepared for athletics in the evening.
Argentine legend Maradonna described the conditions as “inhuman” and the match was twice stopped for water breaks.
It was one of the sport’s hottest properties, Messi, who was central to the outcome after the 21-year-old’s appearance in the Games was only settled a few hours before the first game.
His powerful European club Barcelona had gone to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and won, to keep their prized striker out of the Games before giving an 11th-hour blessing under pressure from Argentina.
There are 32 gold medal events on Saturday and 11 remaining Sunday in an Olympics which have gone largely according to plan for China who wrested the title of the world sports power from an under-performing United States.
China have 47 gold and 91 medals in total, ahead of the United States (31-103), Russia (19-60) and Great Britain (18-45).
Russia overtook Britain for third after winning the C1 500m canoe final and the women’s team synchronised swimming.
On the track Saturday, Kenenisa Bekele runs to become the first man in 28 years to win the elusive long-distance running double, a feat already achieved here by fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba in the women’s 5,000m and 10,000m finals.
The United States, making a late bid for track prestige, have the men’s and women’s 4×400 metres relays within their grasp as long as they can hold on to the baton, an error which cost them in the 4x100m sprint relays.
Boxing finals start for the first time without a US fighter, and with the sport battling to contain serious claims of bribery and manipulation of judges following a series of disputed bouts.
Although the sport’s ruling body AIBA insisted none of the fights were fixed, despite numerous protests, it confirmed it had been tracking “possible attempts of manipulation” for more than two months.
Germany’s Sabine Spitz won the first gold of the day with a commanding display of front riding to win the women’s mountain bike cross country race.
The men’s race was a French duel with defending champion Julien Absalon beating home Jean-Christophe Peraud.
China expect to complete a sweep of all eight diving medals after Hou Liang held off Australian Matthew Mitcham and fellow Chinese Zhou Luxin to be second in the semi-finals of the men’s 10m platform.
Wang Hao defeated Swedish veteran Jorgen Persson in the men’s table tennis semi-finals and will play Ma Lin in an all-China final.
Olympic baseball powerhouse Cuba will defend their title against South Korea – bringing the curtain down on baseball’s short-lived, five-Games appearance.
The Cubans, who dispatched the United States in the semi-finals, have won three of the four previous Olympic tournaments. The sport will drop off the Olympic schedule after Beijing.
Among other finals, the United States and Australia battle for the women’s basketball gold for the third straight Games, Norway play Russia in women’s handball, world champions Germany play Spain for the men’s hockey gold and the United States verse Brazil in the women’s volleyball final.
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