After a dream of an opening round in the women’s Olympic football, the men showed how international football tournaments SHOULD be done; three dismissals, plenty of playacting, a group of death, defensive mindsets…and a domestic team unable to keep the ball and, consequentially, a 1-0 lead. And yet… the opening round of the men’s Olympic football was a long way from the cagey affair normally associated with the big finals. Most of the first halves were a bit ropey. But most of them were at least part-redeemed by what followed the intervals.
While goals didn’t exactly fly in, a few that did will live in the memory. As will “Spain 0 Japan 1.” And Brazil’s game of two halves against Egypt could be the tournament’s signature match. If there’s a better one to come, it’ll be worth trawling the BBC Olympic Channels for. Team GB, as we seemed destined to have to call them, were 200% better than against Brazil last week. But the benefits of being a proper team gave Senegal their point, which they deserved, despite it also being thanks to an all-time shocking refereeing decision, when Saliou Ciss’s assault on Craig Bellamy, went unacknowledged. The Manchester United fans who had booed Bellamy until then booed Ciss from then.
Bellamy’s 19th minute goal was Britain’s first at an Olympic finals since…someone a while back. Commentator Jonathan Pearce gave us that stat but had already read out most of his crib sheet by then – including a reference to Pat Hasty of Aldershot which might have made fans of the old amateur player Paddy Hasty think for a bit – and I momentarily switched off. But if there was a danger of falling asleep, which there was until Senegal perked up a bit after half-time, Pearce was always on-hand with some high-pitched righteous indignation about the physicality of Senegal’s tackling. He was right to be so. And if Senegal had finished with nine players few would have raised a fuss, with Ciss and Pape Souare particularly fortunate. However, I don’t expect any comments about how “tackles like that were fine in my day” when a British player “gets stuck in” during next season’s EPL.
The United Arab Emirates proved intricate passers of the ball during their narrow failure to a fortunate Uruguay. Omar Abdul-Rahmann (he of the Marouane Fellaini fright-wig) played a pass to Ismail Matar for their opener as precise and defence-splitting as Sadio Mane’s for Pape Moussa Konate later in the evening. It could have been Paul Scholes but for the hair. And Uruguay looked a beaten side for 42 minutes – the booing from the Manchester (United) crowd possibly getting to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, while Suarez’s much-vaunted strike partner Edinson Cavani was just crap anyway. Gaston Ramirez’s stunning free-kick in that 42nd minute, and half-time substitute Nicolas Lodeiro’s injection of adrenaline after half-time, turned fortunes around. But Uruguay had to ride their luck once more late on. BBC commentator Steve Wilson declaring that they had “won” the game thanks to a 25-minute spell but had to add “maybe…maybe not” as Ahmed Khalil shot towards Uruguay’s goal. It was “maybe”…by inches.
While Britain and Senegal huffed and puffed, a related sport was being played at Cardiff. Neither Brazil nor Egypt will win any defensive awards, and this lack of rearguard organisation was partly responsible for the spectacle served up. But going forward, Brazil were as good as they’ve looked in years. The Neymar, Oscar and Hulk triumvirate would have had BBC pundit Alan Hansen talking about “pace…power…movement” for a week. And in goalkeeper Neto, another of the traditions of the best Brazilian sides, the wonky goalkeeper, was well maintained (although to be fair Neto is second-choice). “Who would have thought Egypt would have the first shot on target?” exclaimed the BBC’s Guy Mowbray, whose research into Brazil may have centred on last week’s friendly against GB during which Mano Menezes’ team didn’t actually need to defend. And when Oscar drifted out of proceedings in the second half (during which there was less mention of the squillions he’s cost Chelsea), Brazil looked fragile and disjointed. They conceded two bad goals and nearly conceded at least one other good one.
Yet until the unfit Alexandre Pato came on to mess up every Brazilian move late on, you would have fancied the Selecao to keep their noses two goals in front. And Neymar kept running and working and, largely, not falling over in a display that began to suggest comparisons with Messi were not agent-led flights of fancy. It remains to be seen how good Egypt are. Their best player was defender Ahmed Hegazi, the “Nesta of the Pyramids, as he’s known” (By whom? Who are these people, and how do they work such pretentious nonsense into so many conversations that Olympic commentators get wind of it?). They caused fewer problems than Brazil caused themselves and they had a worrying penchant for using Brazilian legs as long jump pits, especially Saleh Gomaa and Mahmoud Alaa Eldin. Egypt could be filed alongside Senegal in the “could have finished with nine” column.
Mind you, whatever Egypt’s qualities, they’ll be too good for either Belarus or New Zealand on last night’s evidence. Portia Modise’s fabulous goal for South Africa aside, Coventry have drawn the short straw in terms of Olympic entertainment. Both sides had their moments. New Zealand’s Chris Wood had first-half chances and Belarus’s Sergei Kornilenko’s late thunderbolt left the crossbar shaking for some moments. The game was better summed up by the only goal, however, the unmarked Dmitry Baga’s far-post header after Oly-Whites (!) keeper Michael O’Keeffe ran underneath a corner. The Belarus lap of honour took up much of the BBC highlights and when Denis Polyakov applauded the knot of Belarus fans behind the goal, no-one was looking; they were either chatting among themselves or filing out of the ground.
How bad were Spain? They were made Olympic favourites for what the seniors did in the Euros last month rather than what the under-21s did in their Euros last year. And this mistake was horribly exposed by a Japan side only denied a more eye-catching victory by equally horrible stage-fright in front of goal. The excuses came in early, co-commentator Danny Mills making the point that Spain were “early in their pre-season” while the J-League players in Japan’s line-up were in the middle of their actual season. This made sense. Pity no-one thought of it before the game. Spain eventually tired first because they were a goal down after 33 minutes, David de Gea giving Manchester United’s opponents a clue at what to do with corners – aim them at him. And they were a man down on 40 minutes after Inigo Martinez’s dismissal for hauling down Kensuke Nagai as they tussled on the edge of the box. Mills couldn’t see the “clear goalscoring opportunity” which Martinez had denied – Mills was never more an ex-defender than at that moment.
Meanwhile studio pundit Steve Claridge was indignant that Japan’s goal from the subsequent quick free-kick was disallowed. Japan’s later finishing, however, suggested they wouldn’t have necessarily scored from said free-kick, as Nagai, Keigo Higashi, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Hotaru Yagamuchi vied for the miss-of-the-match award (Yagamuchi won, slicing high AND wide from seven yards). Japan should therefore probably have won 3-0, but it was a remarkable enough result anyway, if not quite the earth-shattering event the Euro-centric commentators and pundits suggested. Spain have chances of redemption – good ones, to judge by the first 38 minutes of Morocco’s 2-2 draw with Honduras, not such good ones to judge by the last 52 minutes.
Abdelaziz Barrada’s sizzling opener for Morocco brought this game to life. And the second half was a joy. The North Africans were sawn off by the two key refereeing decisions. Eddie Hernandez tripped himself to win the Honduran’s 62nd-minute penalty – an increasingly fashionable move by players who think they are about to be fouled. Mario Martinez’s spat with Zakarya Bergdich had enough violence on both sides for both players to be dismissed – Martinez getting away unpunished while Bergdich saw red will puzzle scientists long after the Higgs-Boson particle is sorted out. How two such good Morocco goals could be cancelled out by two such spawny Honduran ones (a flukey deflection and the dodgy penalty) might puzzle them too. Barrada’s volley from the edge of the box was outdone by Zakana Labyad’s deft, if possibly deflected, chip, after a fine build-up of Barcelona proportions.
And so to the Group of Death. Even the small gathering rattling around inside Newcastle’s St. James’s Park (Sports Direct Arena, my arse) took hours to get into the ground, thanks to an Olympian ticket fiasco. It must be of considerable consolation to many of those so delayed that they only missed Mexico v. Korean Republic. Jake Humphrey felt moved to apologise to anyone who’d taken his advice to press the BBC’s “red button” for this. The Korean kit put me in mind of the Crystal Palace team which won promotion to English football’s top-flight with a thumping win over (if memory serves) Norwich in front of 50,000 at Selhurst Park. The Korean display put me in mind of the Palace team that was in Division Three in the first place. All that said, even this game’s second half wasn’t that bad. The Koreans were missing chances during their best spell at about the same time as Japan were missing theirs. But Mexico, a non-event for an hour, could and perhaps should have nicked it late on. Giovani Dos Santos fluffed a gimme by contorting his body to get in a left-foot shot when sticking out his right foot would have been easier.
And if people were still coming into the ground by then, they must have thought they’d missed a classic when Raul Jiminez struck the outside of the post with another Mexican chance in the final seconds. They hadn’t. Against all odds, Gabon’s 1-1 draw with Switzerland was actually quite a decent game. I’d had my appetite whetted by Gabon’s expansive style during this year’s African Cup of Nations with largely the same group of players. But I’d forgotten about that and was served with no reminders by the first twenty minutes in Newcastle. Much of that time revolved around Switzerland’s opening goal from the penalty spot – conceded in the third minute, scored in the fifth and scored again in the sixth, by Admir Mehmedi after a re-take was ordered. But after Mehmedi missed the BALL by a yard when a yard out from an open goal, a switch was flicked somewhere in the Gabonese camp at about 5.35 and they started to play.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed two presentable chances before toe-punting the third between the Swiss keeper’s legs. And Gabon pressed hard after half-time, noisily-backed by Newcastle’s suddenly extensive Gabonese community (although the pasty faces of some in Gabon shirts suggested they hadn’t seen Libreville in a while). The BBC highlights suggested, misleadingly, that Switzerland monopolised the second-half chances. This was partly a comment on Gabon’s lack of incisiveness in the final third, which might mitigate against their medal hopes. But it was also poor editing, as it overlooked Oliver Buff’s dismissal for two cautions – the second for diving in the penalty area. Maybe his mum snuck into the editing suite when no-one was looking.
Spain’s faltering and Brazil’s defending make this competition harder to predict than most. Japan were good. Morocco’s result would have caught the eye if their luck had matched their second-half display. And Uruguay were slick…eventually. Gary Lineker may have been getting ahead of himself when he asked Robbie Savage if Britain could win the thing. But they have as strong a squad as most in the tournament. And it remains a disgrace that they have had to do effectively prepare during the tournament. They might be out before they even get a chance to hit good form. Still, at least the GB crowd got a chant going last night. As BBC pundit Lucy Ward noted dismissively the night before: “it’s not difficult, is it?” Quite.
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