Ireland’s Rio road came to a heart-breaking conclusion in Deodoro as Argentina eventually won a huge battle of wills with Gonzalo Peillat’s 51st minute drag-flick proving the defining moment.
Needing a win to progress to the quarter-final in their first Olympic Games since 1908, Shane O’Donoghue’s equaliser with 10 minutes left raised serious hopes of an incredible victory against the world number seven side.
But, within 46 seconds, Argentina won another penalty corner and Peillat fired home his sixth goal of the competition to crush Irish hopes.
Reflecting on the tournament, coach Craig Fulton said it was a memorable experience to be part of this team that went above and beyond at each turn, making history and reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
“The dream of winning a medal, playing in a quarter-final is alive in every minute you play here. There’s something really big behind it.,” he said afterwards.
“That’s what this tournament does; it’s like nothing else and you can’t explain it to anyone or what it is going to be like. The players have to go through it.
“Once the players leave this environment and reflect back on where they were and what was at stake, they will realise how big this was and that is a good thing. Hopefully, we will have this group back and fighting for Tokyo.”
In a tough opening to the game, Ireland fell behind in the seventh minute when Juan Saladino pounced on a rebound after an initial David Harte save. The goalkeeper was to make a wealth of great contributions in the first half, snuffing out a series of chances to keep Ireland in the game.
Argentina were using a high press and squeezing the Irish defence, forcing mistakes but the Saladino strike was their only reward of the first half.
By contrast, the green machine were efficient in their attack and they got level when Eugene Magee’s shot ended up on a foot. From the ensuing penalty corner, Shane O’Donoghue’s effort was charged down but the corner was reset allowing John Jermyn to fling home his 92nd international goal.
Peillat, though, did not allow parity to last long and he picked out the bottom corner in the 27th minute to restore his side’s lead.
Argentina continued to press in the third quarter but found Harte in rude health once again, smothering an Agustin Mazzilli strike in one particularly memorable moment. Mazzilli also hit the post but Ireland steadied the platform and Chris Cargo’s driving run earned a corner from which O’Donoghue was to equalise with a clever move that deceived Juan Vivaldi.
It could have set the base for a famous final 10 minutes but Argentina were the ones to hold their nerve. A corner came within a minute, Peillat delivered and Ireland’s challenge was over.
Fulton, though, can reflect on a week in which his side did the country proud. They pushed three sides in the world’s top seven to a single goal while they also recorded a first Olympic win since 1908.
“It’s just bigger than anything and you also want it to be bigger than anything. It’s the pinnacle of our sport,” he said.
“I just hope we have raised the profile of Irish hockey, especially in Ireland, because this team has sacrificed a lot to get to this point and to perform at this level. And it is a big stage to perform on. The guys have done Ireland proud.”
Ireland: D Harte, J Jackson, R Gormley, M Watt, C Cargo, J Jermyn, S O’Donoghue, M Darling, K Good, P Gleghorne, C Harte
Subs: J Bell, A Sothern, E Magee, P Caruth, K Shimmins
Argentina: J Vivaldi, G Peillat, J Gilardi, P Ibarra, F Callioni, L Vila, I Ortiz, M Brunet, L Rossi, M Rey, M Paredes
Subs: L Rey, J Menini, J Lopez, J Saladino, A Mazzilli
Umpires: S Taylor, P Vazquez