Feb. 5, 2012
You might have missed it, but there was a big, championship game in the Western Hemisphere on Sunday night that had the attention of a nation that loves its futbol. In Sunday's South American Women's Under-20 Soccer Championship Game between the national teams of Argentina and Brazil, Rice freshman soccer player Gabriela Iribarne not only played in the middle of the mayhem she helped her country punch its ticket to the U-20 World Cup to be held in Japan later this year.
Iribarne is a freshman who recently completed her first season on the Owls' soccer team last fall. She holds dual citizenship for both the United States and Argentina and for the past two months has been part of the Argentinean national team training for, and playing at, the South American Women's U-20 Soccer Tournament.
Ten South American countries have been playing in that continent's U-20 women's soccer tournament the last few weeks at different sites throughout futbol-crazed Brazil. In addition to trying to win the South American Championship, the tournament's top two finishers qualify to participate in the U-20 Women's World Cup later this August in Japan.
Iribarne had already played for Argentina's U-20 national team before she enrolled at Rice. That national team experience no-doubt helped her play a significant part as Argentina made a story-book run through the tournament, all the way to Sunday's championship final played before a raucous home Brazilian crowd in Curitiba, Brazil.
The Owl freshman was a contributor to Argentina's success at the tournament. On Feb. 2 (Thurs.) Iribarne scored the game-tying goal in the 73rd minute against Paraguay that forced a 2-2 deadlock and helped Argentina secure a top spot in the three-week long pool play format. On Friday her team, or Las Albicelestes if you're an Argentine futbol fan, upset a favored Columbia team with a convincing 3-1 victory in the semifinal round to advance to Sunday's one-game championship.
That made for some good news, and not-so-good news, for Argentina. The good news is Las Albicelestes were heading to the championship final with a chance to go to the U-20 World Cup. The not-so-good news was that Argentina was 1) now going to have to face an extremely talented team from Brazil which had already recorded lopsided wins in the tournament by the scores of 6-0, 7-0 and 8-0, and 2) do so before some of the world's most passionate soccer fans at the hallowed grounds at Estádio Couto Pereira.
If that was not enough pressure enough, then there was the little matter of officially qualifying for the U-20 World Cup - which Argentina had not done. Even though two South American teams would qualify, and Las Albicelestes were playing in Sunday's gold medal game, there was a mathematical chance Argentina would not be one of the continent's two teams (short of a win or tie against mighty Brazil). If Argentina lost Sunday's match, the second World Cup qualifier would be based on the mathematics of goal-differential.
If Brazil rolled out one of their standard blowout wins Sunday, the trip to Japan for Iribarne and Las Albicelestes could slip down the drain. Good thing the goal differential was a simple math problem and would not be an obstacle for at least one student from Will Rice College.
True, Brazil did indeed win the championship match, but it was by a final score of 2-0. The modest goal-differential was enough to book Argentina's trip to the U-20 World Cup. All accounts (and mind you there was some translating to be done) said Argentina's Cinderella gave a pretty solid account of herself at the Western Hemisphere's other big sporting event Sunday night. After a 0-0 score at halftime, Brazil claimed a narrow victory where one of the second half goals was on a penalty kick (after a referee's whistle).
As she had done all throughout the tournament, Iribarne logged her share of playing time in Sunday's Championship. It's a unique playing experience she can bring back to her Rice Owl teammates. She and Las Albicelestes may have come up a little short Sunday, but they will get to play another day at the 2012 U-20 World Cup in Japan.