By Annika Breidthardt
LONDON (Reuters) - Argentine hockey icon Luciana Aymar may be the only woman from Rosario to rival Lionel Messi's popularity, but the three-times world soccer player of the year has something she wants: Olympic gold.
Aymar, who beat Messi to the 2010 Argentine sports personality of the year award, may have her last stab at Olympic gold on her 35th birthday, the day of the women's final at the London Games.
"I want to win the gold, it's the only medal I'm missing," said Aymar, who won hockey's player of the year award a record seven times.
Whether she will even get the chance to play for the gold is another matter as Las Leonas (the Lionesses) have had an uninspiring start to the Olympics, Aymar's fourth.
Argentina lost 1-0 to the United States earlier this week in a physical match that they never quite found their way into. A defeat to the Americans last year was written off as a slip-up, but the United States' win at the Olympics was no fluke.
Beating New Zealand put Argentina back at the top of Group B but with four teams all on equal points chasing just two spots in the semi-finals anything can happen.
Having announced she would retire from international hockey after the Games, Aymar does not know what comes next. She is seeing a psychologist, partly to prepare her for retirement.
"Hockey is the only thing that I know. I think about it but I don't know what exactly I'm going to do," she told Reuters. "Maybe I'll continue playing, just not internationally."
Argentina's flagbearer in London, Aymar has a hockey resume to envy with two World Championships, an Olympic silver and two bronze medals and four of the last five Champions Trophy titles.
Coaches and players around the world say she is one of the few female players, possibly the only one right now, who can single-handedly turn a match.
"She's one of those players who could not touch the ball for 69 minutes and in the last minute they make something happen and that's why they're the best in the world," U.S. skipper Lauren Crandall said. "Aymar is the best player in the world."
Germany coach Michael Behrmann, whose team are up against Argentina later on Saturday, said Aymar brought something special to the field.
"She can carry along her team and electrify spectators. Now we will see whether at the end of her career she will be able to do it again," he added.
Sometimes compared to soccer great Maradona, Aymar's unmatched stick skills have earned her the nickname 'The Magician'. The technique that takes her past three or four players with ease looks natural, but she has worked hard and sacrificed much to get here.
Aged 13, Aymar would travel 300 kilometers by bus several times a week to Buenos Aires to train with the national junior squad. Later she gave up her business administration studies to be able to train more.
Anyone who falls below her standards of commitment and dedication to the sport could come under fire. Earlier this year she made headlines when she chided Argentina's goalkeeper for getting pregnant ahead of the Games.
"She could have waited three months," she was quoted as telling an Argentine sports daily, though added she wished the player well.
Still, her team mates have only good words to say about her.
Martina Cavallero, 13 years her junior, was honoured to play alongside her captain.
"She's fantastic. She's the number one," Cavallero said with a beaming smile. "When I was young, I learned hockey from watching her. I'm a lucky girl to play with her."
While some believe Aymar has the potential to break into television when she gives up the game, her boyfriend is an actor in Argentina, others speculate she could become a coach - although her trainer says he thinks that is unlikely.
Yet there is hope that women's hockey may not lose its leading light.
Aymar said Beijing would be her last Games, but after the team crashed out in the semi-finals she had a rethink and decided to continue her quest for Olympic gold.
(Reporting by Annika Breidthardt)