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ATHENS 2004 | Passport Portraits / A series of looks
at Olympians from around the world

This May Be the One He Needs

Argentina's Ayala has won his share of championships, but an Olympic gold medal could make up for some tough defeats.

August 28, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Roberto Fabian Ayala has haunting memories of games that should have been won but weren't -- three games on three continents that provided three distinctly painful moments for the captain of Argentina's national soccer team.

In the most recent, last month, Argentina was leading rival Brazil, 2-1, with less than a minute to play in the final of the Copa America tournament in Lima, Peru, and still lost. The Brazilians tied the game in injury time, then won it on penalty kicks, 4-2.

Ayala had seen it before. In 2001, he was playing for his current club, Valencia in Spain, when it reached the European Champions League final against Bayern Munich of Germany.

The game in Milan, Italy, was tied, 1-1, at the end of regulation and overtime, but again, Ayala was on the losing side of a penalty-kick shootout, 5-4.

Most painful of all, though, was the loss Ayala suffered at the Atlanta Games in 1996, when Argentina twice led Nigeria in the final, only to see the gold medal slip from its grasp as the Nigerians tied the game in the 74th minute and won it on a goal in the 89th minute, 3-2.

Today, Ayala has the opportunity to banish those memories when Argentina plays Paraguay in the men's soccer final at Olympic Stadium.

Argentina is favored. It has won all five of its matches so far at the Games, outscoring opponents, 16-0.

As a central defender playing on an imposing back line that also features AC Milan's Fabricio Coloccini, River Plate's Javier Mascherano and Manchester United's Gabriel Heinze, Ayala has played a part in those five shutouts.

Still, he can't help but recall the words of teammate and fellow defender Javier Zanetti after the loss to Brazil last month.

"There are things that can't be explained in soccer," Zanetti said. "That's what happened against Brazil. We can't explain what went wrong."

Even though he has won national championships in Argentina, Italy and Spain, Ayala knows that only victory in a major international event will erase the disappointments.

"I never thought I would compete in another Olympic Games after 1996," he told earlier in the tournament. "I see it as a reward for all the good things that have happened to me throughout my career.

"It's true that I have lost some finals, but I feel lucky enough just to have played in them.

"Football always gives you a chance to get your own back. I'm aware that I still have to win something in this [Argentina] shirt, but we're going all out for Olympic gold."

Born in Parana, Argentina, on April 14, 1973, Ayala was not long in trading South America for Europe and establishing himself as one of the world's leading defenders.

His career began at unfashionable Ferrocarril Oeste in 1992, but he quickly moved on to River Plate, which he helped to the Argentina league title in his first year at the Buenos Aires club.

That caught the attention of Napoli in Italy, and Ayala moved to the Serie A and life on a bigger stage. Again success followed for the 5-foot-10, 165-pound defender, and he was acquired by AC Milan, leading it to a league championship in 1999.

Finally, in 2000, he made the move from Italy to Spain, joining Valencia, becoming a key player as the club won its first Spanish championship in 31 years in 2002. With Ayala, Valencia won the Spanish title and the UEFA Cup last season.

Meanwhile, he has been a fixture on the Argentine national team for a decade and has played in more than 90 international games, including the World Cup tournaments of France '98 and Korea-Japan '02.

He is under contract until 2007 but has been targeted by several teams, Real Madrid and Chelsea among those trying to pry him away.

Firm in the tackle and adept in the air, Ayala has long been recognized as one of the game's most accomplished defenders. The only thing missing from his resume is that major international title.

By today, Ayala figures to have that in hand.

"A title for Argentina is long overdue," he said.

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