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Like the line-up on the Thursday evening before my first Glastonbury Festival officially started, the actual opening day of the Olympics proved an unexpected bonus, with a day of entertaining, virtually cynicism-free football, only blemished by a “flag issue” and a terrible tweet. When England hosted the 1966 World Cup, one of the BBC presenters – Frank Bough, possibly – marvelled on-air at how all the North Koreans looked the same. Now, in supposedly more-enlightened times, all Korean flags must look the same.Imagine a Scottish team being displayed with the flag of St. George and you are probably a tenth of the way to the offence caused by South Korea’s flag accompanying North Korea’s players on Hampden Park’s big screen, before kick-off in the DPR Korea v Colombia group game in the Women’s football tournament. And, as if to prove that the BBC’s just-finished comedy series Twenty Twelve couldn’t be funnier than the real thing, the apology from Olympic authority LOCOG confused its Korean Republic with its Democratic Peoples’ Republic.
It was sixty-five minutes before an offended DPR Korea team eventually started playing football – by which time the Hampden Park crowd had diminished from one Queen’s Park would be proud of to one they’re probably used to. And the Koreans didn’t look over-offended once the game kicked-off, outsmarting and outplaying a disjointed Colombian team and eventually proving almost worth the wait – which is a compliment given that the game finished at a quarter to eleven. Not that many people waited. By the time the Koreans bowed to the crowd, they outnumbered them.
The word “there” was a first day annoyance, too, although microscopically minor in the scheme of things. Britain’s men had lots of nice things to say about Britain’s women deservedly beating New Zealand 1-0 in an entertaining tournament opener. But Tom Cleverley belied his name with his tweeted hope that the men could “follow in there footsteps.” One for grammar pedants, I know. Yet the BBC didn’t even correct his mistake, which can only have added to fellow-pedants’ frustrations.Britain’s start was closer to petrified than nervous – possibly distracted by the appearance of a second verse to God Save the Queen, to which no-one knew the words (something about “confounding knavish tricks,” apparently). As the last verse talks of “rebellious Scots to crush,” it’s just as well there was only time for two verses, with the first one rattled through like someone wanting to finish the ‘minute waltz’ in 24 seconds.
Fortunately, Hope Powell’s side quickly settled down to a pleasing display which eventually got its reward through Stephanie Houghton’s free-kick (Houghton pronounced ‘Horton’) midway through the second half and took Britain at least halfway to the quarter-finals (where they will play the runners-up in the group contested by Sweden and Japan). “She won’t get a better chance than that,” read Guy Mowbray from his copy of Commentary for beginners as Anita Asante’s 34th-minute header hit the post. He was proved wrong twice in the next four minutes – Asante twice heading wide from close range in the midst of New Zealand defensive disarray at corners.The addition of two Scots – Ifeoma Dieke and Kim Little – to last year’s English World Cup quarter-finalists is an addition of quality, even if Little fluffed the chance of the first half shortly before the interval. Alex Scott and Dieke collided in comic-book fashion to present Sarah Gregorious with the…er…Football Ferns’ best chance, which she fired at British keeper Karen Bardsley. And that aside, Britain were impressive.
However, brief glances at the first-half of the USA v France match revealed a greater intensity and power, especially, though not exclusively, from the Americans.The States players do overblown patriotism, mindless jargon and irritating self-confidence as well as any of their ‘Team USA’ colleagues. This makes them one of the most annoying teams in the tournament. Against France, though, they proved they were also one of the best.In fact, for 70 of the 90 minutes against their semi-final opponents in last year’s World Cup, they were as ‘awesome’ as you’d expect them to claim of themselves, recovering from going two goals down in 16 minutes as completely as I’ve ever seen any team. And it will take a shock result and a lot of luck to beat them in an Olympic tournament which, we are told, they take more seriously than the World Cup.Given that the World Cup is the older-established competition, you wonder if this attitude from the catchily-acronymed USWNT simply derives from their inferior record in it. But they seem determined to make up for last year’s World Cup final shoot-out loss to the Japanese. And from the moment Abby Wambach’s powerful far-post header brought USWNT back to 2-1, they really were, as they and many fans have likely since said, posted, commented, messaged or tweeted since, ‘awesome.’
The game, the opening round’s best by a street, also produced “goal-of-the-tournament” contenders from France’s Gaetane Thiney and America’s Carli Lloyd. Or at least they were contenders for a couple of hours (see below).The World Champions Japan might have sent a powerful message out that their triumph in Germany last year wasn’t as fortunate as perceived wisdom would have it. Dominating possession but lacking a cutting edge – like Barcelona on an off-day – Japan took most of the first half to breakdown the first round’s ‘plucky’ team Canada. They were inches from being three-up in fifty minutes, though. And had Homare Sawa’s shot been ruled over-the-line, rather than athletically cleared off it by Lauren Sesselmann, Japan might have deflected considerable attention from the Americans. Yet within five minutes, it was 2-1. And it was a nervous, sloppy Japanese team which held on for victory.
‘Sloppy’ could also be applied to Brazil’s competition debut, despite the five unanswered goals they put past Cameroon. They went ahead through Francielle, who took full advantage of a rare selection in the starting line-up before Cristiane spent much of the second half showing why she was always picked in preference.Brazil’s display was petering out until Cristiane and Marta, women’s football’s best player, combined to show a skilful but limited Cameroon team how it should be done in the final third. And 5-0 eventually didn’t flatter them that much. There is no reason whatsoever why Britain v Brazil at Wembley next Tuesday should not be a sell-out. Africa’s tournament threatened disaster when South Africa conceded three early goals to Sweden. And they would have bought and paid for a 4-1 final score when Lotta Schelin rolled in Sweden’s third, a nanosecond after the TV replays of Sweden’s second goal ended.
Portia Modise’s wonder strike on the hour mark will live in the memory longer than most of the rest of the tournament, though, even if the tournament turns out as well as the opening round suggests it could. I’m guessing that I’m not being too harsh on Coventry City by suggesting that the Ricoh Arena hadn’t seen a goal like that before. Modise didn’t just lob Sweden’s keeper, Hedveg Lindahl, she ran fifteen yards past two Sweden midfielders and from the edge of the centre-circle – i.e. ten yards inside the Swedish half – drilled her shot over the retreating Swedish custodian. It was Modise’s 72nd international goal and if they do find the secret to eternal life anytime soon, commentator Steve Wilson’s suggestion that “she could score 2,072 and that would still be the most memorable” could be true.
The quarter-final line-up of any twelve-team tournament will be predictable. And the opening round matches suggest that South Africa, Cameroon and Colombia are favourites for fourth spot in their groups. Picking the group winners is little more difficult after the United States trounced France. Brazil will probably beat Britain, although a rearguard action such as England’s 0-0 draw against Germany in the 2007 World Cup might be possible next Tuesday. But you wouldn’t fancy Britain putting five past Cameroon on the basis of yesterday’s otherwise fine display.
Predictions get more intellectually challenging after that. Sweden and Japan look likely to contest their group when they play on Saturday. But two of the three third-placed teams will also gain a quarter-final berth. And there seems little to choose, yet, between New Zealand, DPR Korea and Canada. Nonetheless, this tournament looks likely to hot up considerably – if not meteorologically – at the knock-out stage. The women’s Olympic tournament, as every commentator seemed contractually obliged to point out, has no age restrictions. So every nation is fielding its strongest line-up. On an enthralling and trouble-free first day (on the pitch at least), that showed. Jonathan Pearce’s wonderment at the lack of dissent on show was genuine, even if co-commentator Jo Potter couldn’t entirely shake off her cynicism (Pearce: “Is it always like this?” Potter: “No.”). And the comprehensive TV coverage worked well. Only the Canadians were described as “getting more men forward” and Pearce kept his cringe-inducing to describing Brazil as “impressive to a girl.” The games have begun. And they have begun well.
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