For a few hours Thursday evening, Argentina seemed to have annexed an acre of blue turf on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
Attracted by the prospect of seeing the men’s field hockey team win a first Olympic field hockey gold medal, hundreds of Argentines flocked to Deodoro Park and turned it into a raucous downtown Buenos Aires-like scene.
Vastly outnumbering fans of Belgium, another first-time finalist, in a nearly packed stadium, Argentina’s supporters tirelessly sang and chanted from long before the match’s start giving Leones (Lions) the home advantage.
Leones rewarded their fans with a 4-2 victory in a gripping final.
“Really, I can’t believe it. I felt more excited when we got to the semifinals,” Argentina captain Pedro Ibarra said. “We are finished and we are happy, but I don’t think we realize we are (Olympic champions).”
The disbelief was understandable. Los Leones have always been the sideshow to the acclaimed women’s side, Las Leonas, who medaled at the previous four Olympics. But the Leonas never won Olympic gold.
Carlos Retegui, a defender for 17 years on so-so men’s teams, coached the women to the London silver, then regained the men’s job in 2013. The Leones found almost immediate success, including a first World Cup medal.
But in Rio, the team had a modest pool round, needing to beat unheralded Ireland 3-2 in the last minutes to confirm a spot in the quarterfinals, where it beat Spain 2-1 on a late penalty stroke.
In the semifinals, however, they routed defending two-time champion Germany 5-2. But two key players broke bones, striker Matias Paredes (right foot) and playmaker Matias Rey (left hand), 400-plus caps of experience sidelined for the final.
Argentina got its goals early then dug in for defense.
Belgium scored just three minutes in; Arthur van Doren’s pass up the middle was expertly deflected in by Tanguy Cosyns. Argentine fans were silent only briefly.
At its first penalty corner, Gonzalo Peillat, who scored a hat trick against Germany, faked and fed Ibarra, whose shot ricocheted in off two Belgians. Ignacio Ortiz blasted in his first goal of the competition, and by halftime it was 3-1 as Peillat had another short corner score, going low left for his tournament-leading 11th goal.
Argentina didn’t earn another corner. After Ortiz’s goal, right on the end of the first quarter, it didn’t have another shot on goal for almost three quarters until the waning seconds.
The Leones stacked their defense, and dared Belgium to score.
The Belgians got only one, seconds from the end of the third quarter, through defender Gauthier Boccard. That brought the tension back, but Belgium was frustrated by Argentine goalie Juan Vivaldi, the deep defense, and mistakes on its own short corners.
Belgium pulled its goalie with three minutes left, and it backfired. Argentina’s Agustin Mazzilli intercepted a cross-field pass in enemy territory, left behind two defenders and walked the goal in with 16 seconds left, and sat on the backboard enjoying the view of teammates embracing, the Argentine fans going wild, and the Belgians collapsing to the turf.
“This gold medal is important, it’s going to help men’s hockey a lot in Argentina,” Mazzilli said. “The girls have been really, really good for a long time. We need to improve the men’s level so we will have more players at home.”
Belgium’s silver was its first medal since it won bronze in its debut on home turf at the 1920 Antwerp Games.
Germany came away with the bronze after beating the Netherlands 4-3 in a shootout. Goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi starred, forcing Billy Bakker to shoot too late and stripping Sander de Wijn to secure Germany’s 10th men’s medal, second only to India’s 11.
Two-time gold medalist and captain Moritz Furste, grateful to Jacobi for not having to go in the shootout, retired.
The women’s final is on Friday, matching defending two-time champion the Netherlands and Britain.