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Of course they did. How could they do anything else? If the Olympic football tournament wasn’t a “proper” international football tournament already, it became one after what someone will surely call Team GB’s “ignominious quarter-final exit on penalties” on Saturday night. Nevertheless, those questioning the legitimacy of Olympic football might point to Team GB’s failings on a night when everybody else in Britain seemed to win an Olympic medal of some description. I ran for a bus on my way home from work and half-expected a bronze medal from the driver.
BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce spent much of his air time in Cardiff, where Team GB were playing South Korea, summoning up the spirit of successful athletes elsewhere – mostly photogenic female ones. But this failed to reach Craig Bellamy, Tom Cleverley and, alas, Daniel Sturridge. More important than any debate about Sturridge’s penalty shoot-out run-up, though, was the quality of the men’s quarter-finals. The men’s tournament had thus far provided uneven entertainment value. Large tracts of the third round were a godsend to mogadon addicts. The quarter-finals were not.
Brazil’s narrow squeak against a popular Honduras team was eventful, to say the least, and provided hope for anyone fearful of a Brazilian procession to the Gold Medal. Japan’s encounter with Egypt was developing into a classic until Saadeldin Saad’s 41st-minute dismissal took the competitive sting out of proceedings. Mexico v. Senegal was that classic. Wembley Stadium played host to one of the third round bores – South Korea v. Gabon. But this match redressed the balance. I can’t recall a more tireless performance than Giovani Dos Santos up-front for Mexico (no-one at Tottenham ever saw the like from him). And for all the focus on Senegalese physicality, their speedy movement of the ball was just as fundamental to their style.
It was a desperate shame that a match of such high quality was settled by defensive howlers from Papa Gueye and Abdoulaye Ba in extra-time. But it was perhaps fitting that Dos Santos was there to turn both mistakes into goals. He and Peralta shone as a front two. And Japan’s tournament clean sheet will be under its severest threat when the strikers return to Wembley tomorrow night. Mexico led at the break thanks to Jorge Enriquez’s clever header from a superb Dos Santos free-kick – and some terrific goalkeeping from Jose Corona. And they squandered chances to double their advantage, most notably when Marco Fabian and Dos Santos ran lanes through Senegal’s defence with more one-twos than you’d see in a season at some grounds.
However, it was a bit much for co-commentator Mark Bright to claim “nothing seems to be happening for Senegal at the moment” shortly after Peralta made it 2-0. Senegal were a persistent threat while Bright, presumably, wasn’t watching. And their comeback, with two goals in seven minutes, was not a huge shock. It gave us an extra half-hour’s entertainment, as Mexico swarmed forward to re-take the initiative before Senegal mustered a remarkably energetic comeback, which was only undermined by Ba’s defensive clanger. Most of this was going on while Bright was explaining why extra-time was always so cagey. Can he not talk and watch at the same time? It seemed not when both he and Steve Wilson wondered aloud why Pape Souare received a yellow rather than red card for his firmly-applied boot to the side of Hector Herrera’s head.
Souare leapt high enough for a pole vault medal, let alone a high jump one, and as he hung in the air, his boot caught the unfortunate Herrera. Replays seemed to show Souare only had eyes for the ball. But Wilson and Bright could not work out that referee (Mark Clattenburg, with pudding-bowl haircut) and his assistant possibly deemed the incident dangerous but accidental (although Bright might have been right to suggest that the assistant missed the whole thing, as he appeared to forget about the offside law for the rest of the game). Nothing, though, could detract from a fantastic match.
We will never know how Japan would have fared against 11 Egyptians for 90 minutes at Old Trafford. Eleven-against-eleven produced a first half of two halves, with Japan dominant and Egypt soporific for twenty minutes before a drama teacher somewhere near Manchester clapped his hands and the two sides reversed roles. Twenty minutes later, they switched back and Saad saw red for hauling down a goalbound Manabu Saito. Egypt’s passing and movement kept them competitive to a degree after the interval, particularly Mohamed Salah down the right flank.
But they were gradually worn down after Salah was taken off – much to the surprise of commentator Guy Mowbray. And when the drama teacher clapped his hands again and shouted “now, farce!”, the Egyptians obliged.
Their players either got injured or booked or, in Omar Geber’s case, both at once. It was almost as if someone in the Egyptian camp had recalled that a game might be voided if either side went down to seven players. “Every time Japan score, Egypt go another man down,” noted Mowbray, accurately encapsulating the last ten minutes. There had been carnage of sorts after Kensuke Nagai gave Japan a 14th-minute lead. Bodies were strewn all over Egypt’s penalty box after Nagai fired the ball into a net left empty by Saad’s collision with his goalkeeper Ahmed Elshenawi. And Nagai was quite badly hurt by Ahmed Hegazi landing on him as he scored his goal (“he took the brunt of all of him” – Mowbray). But he only noticed this once he’d stopped celebrating
The carnage was all Egyptian in the closing stages and only Japan’s conservative outlook on footballing life prevented a rush of late goals. Japan had only scored twice in three group matches, so three-nil was relatively indulgent. And any more would have been unfair on Egypt, who entertained throughout the tournament, if only comically so at the end. Honduras have entertained, too, which is why the Newcastle crowd took to them in their quarter-final, despite having two players sent-off and despite the opposition being Mano Menezes’s normally-delightful Brazilian team. Brazil were not so delightful here, despite maintaining their record of scoring three times in each match. It was almost as if they took a conscious decision to stick at three after they went 3-2 up against what was by then a ten-man Honduras – a tactic which could have cost them, which in turn would have delighted the crowd.
The game turned on what it must be safe to say was not the best 52 seconds of Honduran full-back Wilmer Cristano’s career. Finding himself in the centre of midfield, he watched one pass sail past his nose as if he didn’t actually recognise the ball. Eight seconds later he sent Brazilian striker Hulk tumbling. And after another 44 seconds, mostly taken up by Crisanto contesting his booking, he sent Neymar spinning with a clumsy lunge and his game was over. If the Newcastle crowd hadn’t already been on the Hondurans’ side, they were now. Neymar was booed for the rest of the match for his actually inconsequential part in Cristano’s downfall. And when midfield omnipresence Roger Espinosa collected his second booking as an almost inevitable result of the amount of tackles he made, he received the sort of ovation that would have made Alan Shearer’s remaining hairs stand up.
Honduras were better than plucky underdogs. And after withstanding intense early Brazilian pressure – Leandro Damiao should have scored inside forty seconds – they took and impressively kept a 1-0 lead, which Espinosa had the temerity to restore after Crisanto’s dismissal and Leandro’s soft equaliser. Brazil’s Chelsea-bound Oscar was described by commentator Jon Roder as “one of those here there and everywhere players” but Espinosa fitted that bill just as well. And if Honduras had kept their 2-1 lead longer than two minutes, they might have frustrated Brazil to the point of at least evening things up at ten men each. As it was, Espinosa won a race, as keenly-contested as any in Stratford, to be the next man dismissed. And even if Honduras had forced extra-time, thirty minutes trying to keep even an off-key Brazil out with only nine players would not have been pretty.
Aside from the penalty shoot-out drama, the GB/South Korea wasn’t that pretty either, and suffered in comparison to the three previous games. Britain still portrayed signs of unfamiliarity in their play, despite continuing their tournament-long improvement. And the crowd reaction was more marked every time a neat piece of skill sent Britain forward, only for the attack to peter out due to lack of forward runners. There were groans of disappointment rather than the more, ahem, intense response we are used to hearing from England fans – a consequence of playing in front of an ‘Olympic (more family-orientated) audience’ rather than a ‘football crowd,’ which was by no means an entirely bad thing.
South Korea were way short of the sum of their parts, which was probably handy. They were very hard-working to gain possession, neat and tidy in that possession and very difficult to dispossess. Yet, as in previous games, they didn’t create the chances that combination should lead to. And they had a Premier League strike pairing in Sunderland’s Ji-Dong Won and Arsenal’s Chu-Young Park perfectly capable of squandering any that they did create. They only scored when Britain keeper Jack Butland blotted an otherwise pristine copybook by letting a rare well-struck Ji-Dong Won effort go through him like an overdose of all-Bran (“it’s gone over him…or under him…oh, he’s missed it…he never got near it,” said a bewildered Lawrenson). And had Aaron Ramsey even hinted at aiming for the corner of the goal with his penalty kicks, he’d likely have scored both and we’d be anticipating/dreading a semi-final with Brazil.
For once, the domestic shoot-out spot-kickers were blameless. The post-match talk was of Sturridge’s hesitation in his run-up. But he struck his kick at least as well as anyone. It was just brilliantly saved by South Korean substitute keeper Lee-Bum Young. And Sturridge’s couldn’t be blamed for Lawrenson noting, seconds earlier, that neither keeper “had looked like saving one.” The tournament has an ‘exotic’ semi-final line-up which is presumably a reference to the lack of European teams – and it is a savage indictment of under-23 players across the whole continent that only the hastily-thrown together British team got out of their group. Japan and Mexico will be a fascinating pass-a-thon and perhaps the game Japan v. Egypt could have been. And South Korea’s work-rate and pressing will be a test of the silkiest of Oscar’s and Neymar’s skills, even if Brazil’s defensive frailties might not be so rigorously examined. It is still difficult to see beyond Brazil for the Gold Medal. But it isn’t as difficult to see as it was.
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