The Columbus Crew's Emmanuel Ekpo was a member of Nigeria's silver medal winning Olympic team.
Leighton/AP

Ekpo, Nigeria win silver in Beijing

When he stood on the medal platform at the Bird's Nest Saturday afternoon, Emmanuel Ekpo admitted he had mixed emotions. The Columbus Crew midfielder was about to receive a silver medal as Nigeria finished second in the Olympic men's soccer tournament.

"Actually, I would say it was a thing of joy," he said. "On the other hand, I would say I wasn't so happy. I was in it for the gold medal. We should have won the gold medal."

But Ekpo did bring home a precious medal, the lone MLS player to do so. The Nigerians eliminated the United States in the third and final game of the opening round, getting past Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals and Belgium in the semis, before losing 1-0 to Argentina in the gold medal match.

"That's still OK for me," he said of a silver medal.

In fact, the final whistle by referee Viktor Kassai of Hungary turned out to be Ekpo's most memorable moment of the Olympics.

"When I heard the final whistle and I knew it was all gone," he said. "I couldn't get the gold medal anymore. I was thinking we are not getting the gold medal today. I am not going to hang a gold medal."

Like many of his Nigerian teammates, Ekpo realized the gold medal game was a game they let get away. The Argentineans became only the fourth team to win back-to-back men's soccer titles as they ended the Nigerians' quest of becoming the first African country to win two gold medals. Nigeria won it at the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996.

"The game wasn't that bad," he said. "We played well. We had most of the chances. It's just that we couldn't convert our chances. It was unfortunate for us."

The 20-year-old Ekpo came on as a second-half substitute for the sixth consecutive time in the tournament, replacing Isaac Promise in the 70th minute. He played 88 minutes the entire Olympics.

The Nigerians tried to duplicate their miracle comeback against the Argentina in the 1996 gold medal match in Athens, Ga. In that match, Nigeria turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory in the final minutes.

But not this time.

"It was evenly contested," Ekpo said of the game. "We had a better chance of winning the game, but we didn't convert our chances. In the second half we outplayed them. We had to apply the pressure. There was nothing to lose. We just couldn't get the goal."

The gold medal match, played in front of 89,103 spectators at the National Stadium, certainly wasn't one of the most memorable soccer finals in recent times. Both teams lost energy, especially in the second half and there could have been more scoring chances.

The midday start in temperatures that soared to 108 degrees on the field obviously had something to do with it.

Because FIFA wanted to play the game at National Stadium, it had to settle on a noon local starting time before the final day of track and field events here (all other matches were played at night). That coincided with field temperatures of 105 degrees. Soccer's world governing body allowed water breaks in the 30th and 70th minutes as a precautionary measure, which is virtually unprecedented at the international level.

"It was quite hot," Ekpo said. "But back in Nigeria it is even hotter than here. ... The humidity was quite high [and] affected us in the second half."

Ekpo claimed the heat did not affect him that much. He said he had much more important matters on his mind.

"I knew I was coming in the second half," he said. "I knew I had a big task ahead because we were a goal down. I wasn't thinking about the weather. I didn't think the weather should affect me at that time. I just wanted to get the equalizer."

Which Nigeria failed to do. Ekpo did not take any shots, playing more of a link midfielder, helping to pass the ball in and around the penalty area.

While the African side could not find away to put the ball past Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Romero, the South Americans did on the other end of the field as midfielder Angel Di Maria solved goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin in the 58th minute off a pass from the great Lionel Messi.

Messi did not have the best of games, especially for his standards and expectations. But he was wise enough to realize there were other ways to contribute.

"We knew coming in that we may never have this experience again, so we are lucky that everything went well and we got what we wanted," Messi said.

"This is a great day for the people of Argentina, and for the development of the game there," coach Sergio Batista said.

Messi almost didn't play in the tournament. His Spanish club team, Barcelona, won a court ruling that would have allowed it to pull back Messi. But when push came to shove, the La Liga side let the man known as "The Flea" to remain in China. It worked out well for Argentina and will allow Messi to return to Spain a contented man with motivation to perform brilliance for his club.

"People said a lot of things that annoyed me before I came to China, everyone knows that," Messi told FIFA.com. "That's what makes this medal so special."

Compared to some of his earlier performances in the tournament, Messi wasn't anywhere close to his brilliant and lethal self as Nigeria did its best to contain him. So, the FC Barcelona superstar went to Plan B -- he passed. His most important one was to Di Maria, who raced in on the left side on goalkeeper Vanzekin, chipping him from 18 yards.

Di Maria admitted that he first thought of firing away, but changed his strategy when he saw the 'keeper come out of the net. "Luckily, it went in," he said.

Lucky for Di Maria and Argentina, unlucky for Ekpo and his teammates.

Because Nigeria bounced around the country, playing its early matches in Tianjin, Shanghai and Beijing, the team wasn't settled enough to see the capital city (even on game days there the team was focused on the game). Since Ekpo is returning to Nigeria with the team on Tuesday, he will spend the next few days playing tourist and not soccer.

He said a Chinese friend was going to take him to some of the usual tourist spots -- The Great Wall, for example -- and some other places.

Then it's back to Nigeria for a few days before Ekpo returns to Columbus on Sept. 1 or 2.

He doesn't know the player will receive a bonus for earning a silver medal.

"I believe there will be something for us," he said.

The key word is believe because many African countries -- Nigeria included -- have a history of promising players bonuses, only to fail to put their money where their mouth is.

Regardless, they can't take Expo's silver medal away.

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.

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