Olympic Football 2016: The Story So Far

by | Aug 12, 2016

Football was all I watched of 2012’s Olympics, apart from going to the cycling time a mile-and-a-bit from my front door. And with the cycling not so close this time, football will be my 2016 Olympics. And who wouldn’t relish two weeks’ international football live on telly (well, BBC iplayer) without Lawrenson or Savage? The 2012 women’s tournament was better than the men’s. Understandably, as the top women players were involved, whereas the men’s teams were largely under-23s.

In 2016, the roles have been reversed. The men’s football has been largely entertaining. South Korea 3 Germany 3 was as good it sounded, Japan 2 Colombia 2 better than it sounded. And Nigeria 5 Japan 4 speaks for itself. Brazil’s early toils were grimly fascinating, as their occasionally slick build-up play was repeatedly destroyed by pub-team forward play. And Fiji were fun.

The women’s competition has suffered from the functional nature of inevitable winners the United States, the England-sized hole in the line-up (they couldn’t represent “Team GB”) and 2015 World Cup runners-up Japan’s failure to qualify. Still, Zimbabwe were fun. The women’s three groups were E-to-G, the men’s four groups A-to-D because…er…anyway…

WOMEN’S TOURNAMENT

GROUP F: THROUGH: CANADA, AUSTRALIA, GERMANY.

Canada 2 Australia 0; Germany 6 Zimbabwe 1; Canada 3 Zimbabwe 1; Germany 2 Australia 2; Canada 2 Germany 1; Australia 6 Zimbabwe 1

 A mixed bag, this. Canada were superb after Shelina Zadorsky saw red against the Aussies and won a semi-thriller against Germany, while impressing least against Zimbabwe. Australia missed chance-upon-chance against Zimbabwe and Germany but misplaced their creativity against the ten Canadians. Canada’s Janine Beckie scored 19 seconds into the tournament, against Australia. And they won well despite squander a penalty opportunity and missing a sitter.

Australia should have put away a mediocre Germany after going two-up. One suspects, though, that Caitlin Foord’s finishing school went bust. And Saskia Bartusiak’s late, scrappy equaliser was inevitable and undeserved in equal measure. Zimbabwe were entertaining, deservedly scoring in each game. But you wonder what they’d have achieved if they’d put as much work into defending corners as their multi-layered goal celebrations.

GROUP G: THROUGH: UNITED STATES, FRANCE.

United States 2 New Zealand 0; France 4 Colombia 0; United States 1 France 0; Colombia 0 New Zealand 1; United States 2 Colombia 2; France 3 New Zealand 0

Group G’s crowds charmed all-comers with their unrelenting booing of ego-maniacal US keeper Hope Solo because of her pre-tournament comments on the Zika virus. Keep up the good work everyone. USA were comfortable group winners, despite only sneaking past France. They’ve never been likeable, even on top footballing form. Bullying striker Abby Wambach summed them up perfectly. But without her, cough, ‘combative’ approach, the US have been no more popular, if no less likely to win gold.

Their under-strength side’s draw against Colombia (the group was already won) came from Solo’s nightmare display; letting one free-kick through her legs, while punching air as another free-kick flew past…the irony of Solo missing punches probably not lost on observers of her personal life (type “Hope Solo nephew” into your nearest search engine for details). France speedily avenged their shock 2-0 2015 World Cup defeat to Colombia, scoring after 65 seconds in a 4-0 win. They were less slick against largely ambitionless New Zealand and were dysfunctional in front of goal against the US. But they’ve improved from previous major tournaments to the point of medal contention.

GROUP E: THROUGH: BRAZIL, CHINA, SWEDEN.

Brazil 3 China 0; Sweden 1 South Africa 0; Brazil 5 Sweden 1; China 2 South Africa 0; Brazil 0 South Africa 0; China 0 Sweden 0.

Brazil’s women matched their men’s much-derided nil-nil draw against South Africa. But the women had already qualified stylishly and rested as many players as an 18-strong squad permitted…and their nil-nil was actually quite good. Brazil, “superstar Marta” especially, are clearly enjoying themselves. Marta often cut a surly figure during Brazil’s consistent Olympics and World Cup failures. But she’s been smiling…a lot…here.

Doubts remain as to the quality of opposition they dismantled in their first two games, especially as China have improved since losing 3-0 to them. China’s entertaining 2-0 win over South Africa included a match-within-a-match between striker Yang Li and South African keeper Roxanne Barker. Barker saved about seven one-on-one situations…before Tan Ruyin pinged a 40-yarder past her late on.

Sweden changed from bright yellow shirts to a faded “gold” which is clearly “custard.” And “faded custard” accurately reviewed their performances. They beat South Africa thanks to rare handling errors from Barker. And their goalless bore with China suited both sides’ immediate ambitions, although the game was too purposeful to be a fix, unless it was very well-choreographed.

QUARTER-FINALS: USA/Sweden; China/Germany; Canada/France; Brazil/Australia.

Canada shocked France to win bronze in 2012, while Australia shocked Brazil, and most everyone watching, by winning their 2015 World Cup last-16 encounter. Double-revenge is predicted. China have improved as Germany have deteriorated. If they’ve met in the middle, extra-time and penalties beckon. The US, though, will trample on Sweden, unless the custard creams’ displays were an elaborate hoax…or Solo chucks another couple into the net.

Prediction: Brazil/USA and Germany/France semi-finals. USA winning gold and Brazil bronze. And if that doesn’t shorten Canada’s odds on Canada.

MENS TOURNAMENT

GROUP D: THROUGH: PORTUGAL, HONDURAS.

Portugal 2 Argentina 0; Honduras 3 Algeria 2; Portugal 2 Honduras 1; Argentina 2 Algeria 1; Portugal 1 Algeria 1; Argentina 1 Honduras 1.

Portugal won this group but weren’t the stars of it. Honduras were two-up against Algeria at half-time. But it was all Algeria thereafter. “Like a mirror image of the first half in reverse” said discombobulated commentator Paul Dempsey, correctly. Algerian keeper Farid Chaal probably gave Anthony Lozano Honduras’s third goal because he hadn’t seen the ball since half-time and didn’t recognise it. Though 3-1 down on 79 minutes, Algeria still created enough chances to win, mostly inside the six-yard box, but horribly missed all-but-one.

Argentina’s exit gave Brazilian fans more to celebrate than the Selecao’s dismal early efforts. Some observers’ tournament favourites, they succumbed meekly to Portugal, scuffed their way past Algeria and took consistent wrong options in goalscoring positions against Honduras in an incident-packed second-place decider. Both sides missed spot-kicks before the lively Lozano finally converted one. Mauricio Martinez levelled during six minutes’ stoppage time for a five-minute drinks break, two injuries and five substitutions, though Argentina would probably not have saved themselves in any unadded minutes. And who couldn’t warm to attack-minded Central Americans with a forward called Albert Ellis (Alberth Elis)?

GROUP C: THROUGH: GERMANY, SOUTH KOREA.

South Korea 8 Fiji 0; Mexico 2 Germany 2; South Korea 3 Germany 3; Mexico 5 Fiji 1; Germany 10 Fiji 0; South Korea 1 Mexico 0.

Fiji were kingmakers in a group from which one good team had to be eliminated. Being reigning Olympic champions isn’t that significant in a quadrennial underage competition. But Mexico were good enough in stages of all three of their games to suggest that they were worthy holders. Alas, the eye-catching, arguably fair half-time score “Fiji 1 Mexico 0” cost them dear.

Fiji were genuinely the better side for 20 minutes and nearly doubled their lead with an ultra-slick set-piece. Mexico also chronically underused 63% possession against South Korea. Germany had 62% against Fiji…and scored ten. South Korea looked shattered against Mexico and Kwon Chang-Hoon’s stunning 73rd-minute winner belonged in another performance entirely. Their form against Fiji and Germany suggested a repeat of 2012’s bronze. Their form against Mexico didn’t.

Germany leaked goals but scored them too. While Fiji were as unpredictable as…erm…expected. They were transparently knackered against Germany. However, they were only one-down after 62 minutes against South Korea thanks to half-a-dozen fine saves from policeman/goalie Simione Tamanisau, one stop genuinely “Gordon Banks against Pele” world-class. Fiji’s subsequent collapse shouldn’t overshadow their Mexico heroics or Tamanisau’s tournament. His penalty save against Germany was deserved consolation for the semi-humiliation of conceding ten. And Fiji were the Olympic ideal personified.

GROUP B: THROUGH: NIGERIA, COLOMBIA.

Nigeria 5 Japan 4; Sweden 2 Colombia 2; Nigeria 1 Sweden 0; Japan 2 Colombia 2; Nigeria 0 Colombia 2; Japan 1 Sweden 0.

Early in Nigeria/Japan, the goals flew in as if it was a highlights reel. But Japan fought back from 5-2 to 5-4, played their part in a cracker with Colombia and should have beaten Sweden by way more than one-nil. Colombia beating Nigeria was another “handy” one (see China/Sweden above). Nigeria were already group winners. Colombia needed a win to finish second. And that result was certain once Teofilio Gutierrez gave Colombia a third-minute lead. Again, the game seemed too purposeful to be fixed. Still. Handy.

There wasn’t a bad game in the group. And while Japan were particularly undeserving of exit, all four were. More than Denmark, definitely.

GROUP A: THROUGH: BRAZIL, DENMARK.

Brazil 0 South Africa 0: Iraq 0 Denmark 0; Brazil 0 Iraq 0; Denmark 1 South Africa 0; Brazil 4 Denmark 0; Iraq 1 South Africa 1

It began as the Group of Death, exploded into life at the death, made deadly-dull Denmark quarter-finalists and ended as the Group of Injustice. One goal was what the first four Group A games merited. Which made the subsequent thrills all-the-more unexpected. Against South Africa, who also contributed hugely, Iraq were fantastically frantic and, most days, they’d have won and qualified. They hit the post three times while sitters were missed and bulky South African custodian Itumeleng Khune somehow got in the way when needed.

Brazil had been ghastly. Neymar was seconds fleeter of thought than his colleagues, with grim results. Gabriel Jesus was initially Manchester City fans’ reactions to news of his signing. And Gabriel Barbosa’s nickname “Gabigol” sounded like sarcasm. But then Brazil rediscovered their mojo. And despite mountainous Guinea-Bissau-born centre-back Gomes, Denmark couldn’t cope. Where was all this good football hiding? Is Denmark’s qualification deserved punishment?

QUARTER-FINALS: Portugal/Germany; Nigeria/Denmark; South Korea/Honduras; Brazil/Colombia 

Cases can be made for all quarter-finalists progressing…although Denmark need Nigeria to continue deteriorating (“all we are saying…is give us a goal” Nigerian fans pleaded against Colombia…in perfect English). Likewise, Honduras against South Korea. Brazil must keep their rediscovered mojo. Germany scored freely even before embarrassing Fiji. But while Portugal haven’t impressed (bar recovering from going one-down to Honduras after 31 seconds), they’ve spent all summer winning tournaments despite themselves.

Predictions: Semi-finals: Brazil/South Korea, Nigeria/Germany. Germany to beat Brazil in the final, to re-open the 2014 World Cup wounds. South Korea to replicate 2012’s bronze. Colombian fans will be delighted.

THE BEEB

The BBC’s Olympic football webpage should be the first place for live coverage. But while they’ve live-streamed all games, some have only been accessed by scenic search engine routes. And page updates have often been slow. The coverage lacks the usual pundits and is…all the better for it. Some matches have lacked commentary completely. Player-recognition issues aside, this hasn’t been an issue.

Commentators are from the “world feed” service for broadcasters who can’t be arsed afford to use their own people. They are experienced, multi-sport international broadcasters…some covering more than one Olympic sport (hence one “gliding around the court” reference). Kevin Keatings is perhaps the most familiar name/voice from his SKY TV La Liga commentaries. They are inoffensive but over-reliant on stats and crib-sheets. And they poorly analysed some group deciders. Dempsey insisted that Australia’s competition future lay in racking up loads of goals against Zimbabwe’s chaos-theory defending, when two-nil was enough.

Once France beat New Zealand, nil-nil was enough for Sweden. Yet Duane Dell‘oca insisted Sweden needed a win, composing international career obituaries even as on-screen graphics contradicted him. “Still to be confirmed,” he protested as their qualification was…er…confirmed. And he knew New Zealand’s result. The world feed commentator was…him. Minor gripes, though. World Feed over RobbieBloodySavage anytime.

CONCLUSION: Some matches have been terrific. Others have involved Denmark. And the healthy goals-per-game ratio, 3.3 (men) and 3.0 (women), might drop in the knock-out stages. Fiji, Zimbabwe, Japan, Mexico and Iraq will be missed.  Sweden less-so. But thanks to all who’ve contributed to a decent first week.

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