It took a few days to have some truly entertaining Olympic coverage that was actually live, that I didn't ruin for myself by opening my Yahoo! homepage and seeing the results before they aired on television. As it turns out, there was drama to be had on the soccer pitch, especially within the men's bracket.
The women's semifinal matches on Monday featured some very interesting similarities. In the first match, Brazil took on Germany, and it didn't look good for Brazil early on. Germany hung with the favored Brazilian team, even scoring first at the ten minute mark. It was all downhill from there, however, as Brazil got a goal from defender Formiga in the 43rd minute to tie the game headed into the half, then added three second half goals from Marta and Cristiane to charge to a 4-1 victory.
The second womens' semifinal was a very similar story, as Japan played hard early and scored the first goal of the game in the 16th minute. The US women soon found their game, however, tallying two goals in the last five minutes of the first half on their way to an easy 4-2 victory.
Brazil's womens team is a clear favorite over a US team that is playing in their fourth gold medal game in the four Olympic games since the sport was added. However, they now face additional pressure after the way the mens' semifinal matches unfolded today.
In the first game, Nigeria faced a Belgian team that was believed to have a bit of an edge, having pulled off the impressive feat of playing a man down for 70-plus minutes against Italy and still coming away with a 3-2 victory. However, instead of giving them momentum, it was apparent early on that the match against Italy merely sucked all the passion from Belgium's game.
Nigeria's Olubayo Adefemi scored the first goal of the game early on, to give Nigeria a 1-0 lead that it still held at the half, but the game was not nearly so close. Nigeria missed several excellent opportunities to put the ball in the goal, and it appeared to be a matter of time before Belgium would finally crack under the pressure of Nigeria's speed and ball handling.
That feeling proved accurate, as the Belgian defense gradually fell apart in the second half, resulting in a 4-1 final score that was numerous close moments away from being much, much worse.
In the other semifinal, several controversial calls led the Brazilian men's team to an ugly loss and lots of question marks for their remaining time in Beijing. As was to be expected from a game featuring players the caliber of Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho, the first half was very fast paced, and each team had a few opportunities, but the half inevitably ended scoreless.
Common wisdom would believe it was merely a matter of time before Brazil pulled away, given that Argentina's defense had been much more lucky than good so far, and Brazil truly had the talent to capitalize on any errors.
Early in the second half, the game shifted. A ball into the box appeared to go off the chest of forward Sergio Aguerro, and replay actually revealed that it had gone off his arm and perhaps should have been called a non-goal on a handball. However, the refs have no such benefit and no call was made.
That goal forced Brazil to very gradually start taking chances, and a mere six minutes later, Aguerro notched a second, legitimate goal to take the score to 2-0. Later in the half, Brazilian forward Pato scored to make the game 2-1, but the goal was waived off on a very touchy offside call – it was very close and the referee could very well have let it go. This left the game at 2-0, and kept the pressure on Brazil, which only led to a sudden avalanche of mistakes.
First, a yellow card on defenseman Rafinha gave Argentina a penalty kick and a 3-0 lead in the 76th minute. Then, within three minutes of game time, Brazil notched two red cards for foolish hard fouls. The first was against Lucas, who had been the team's best defender to this point in the tournament, and the second was against forward Thiago Nieves, perhaps the best offensive player not named Ronaldinho in this Olympic tournament.
Brazil will now be forced to play without both players for the bronze medal game against Belgium. That may not completely erase the Brazilian advantage, but a medal is suddenly not the lock it should be for such a talented team.
That match will be Friday night, and will be followed by a Nigeria-Argentina gold medal match that is a rematch of the 1996 gold medal game from Atlanta, with Argentina looking to become the fourth ever repeat gold-medalist.