There has been quite a lot written over the last few days on the subject of the Olympic Games and its various interactions with association football. A lot of this – in particular the hand- wringing chip wrapper fodder about how the behaviour of competitors over last couple of weeks has somehow ‘shamed’ our national game – but there is perhaps a grain of a point to be made about the different feeling that Olympic football has had about it in comparison with the standard, bread and butter that we usually imbibe to the point of intoxication. Is the Olympic crowd a ‘different’ one and, if so, is this ‘preferable’ to elsewhere?
In the case of the British teams, there is an obvious case to answer in the affirmative, but Britain, as we are all clearly aware by now, is a special case, with its curious geopolitical state and history meaning that a British team would have an element of the piecemeal about it whilst courting a degree of uncertainty through to its very end.
What, though, of the rest of the two tournaments? There can be little question that Olympic football is different, but what has the reaction been to it all and how might this coloured, tempered or perhaps even enhanced peoples experiences of it? It was this in back of the mind that we travelled to Wembley Stadium yesterday afternoon for the first of the semi-finals in the womens tournament between France and Japan. This was a match which, for those with a solid grounding in the recent history of womens football, carried an obvious and natural relevance. Japan surprised many in winning the World Cup last year, beating the hosts, holders and favourites Germany on the way. France, meanwhile, beat England on – and perhaps there are no surprises here – penalty kicks in the quarter-finals of the competition before losing in the semi-finals against the United States of America. These, then, were two of the strongest womens teams in the world, although whether this might or would have made any difference to those who turned out to watch it is unknown and, of course, broadly speaking an irrelevance.
On the Metroland train out from the centre of London, it felt very much like just another weekday afternoon. The train was speckled with French and Japanese supporters, along with family groups chattering amongst themselves about the games in a general sense. At Wembley Park underground station, however, notions that the public may have forgotten about this event in the wake of the twin British exit from it over the course of the weekend were quickly disabused. Wembley Way was a mass of colour or noise, with national flags and shirts mixing with club shirts as people made their way towards their turnstiles. The security checks were relatively trouble-free – though the notion of having to empty ones pockets into a clear plastic bag, when coupled with the slate grey anonymity of the Wembley concourse, had something of the airport security check and the disparity between the length of the mens and womens queues was also a little disconcerting – but few spirits seemed dampened by it all, while the tendency to feel as if the catering staff were plucking nasal hairs from you one by one as they extracted money in return for mediocre beer was one that is not unique to this stadium or this event.
In the forty-five minutes building up to kick off, the stadium filled to a total crowd of a little under 61,500 people. At a games during which empty seats have at times been as much of a talking point as the sports on show, this is not an inconsiderable crowd when we bear in mind that this number of people had turned out on a midweek afternoon – albeit a late afternoon – for a match between two neutral teams. With no segregation in place, French and Japanese supporters – a thoroughly unscientific head-count would put the Japanese support larger at about two to one, but with neutrals of varying descriptions probably making up the bulk of those present – mingled without incident, taking photographs of each other, exchanging scarves and generally enjoying a sociable afternoon out with some sport thrown in for good measure. Then, however, came the formalities of international football. The flag-bearers. The national anthems. That dreadful FIFA anthem which sounds like The Imperial March might have done had it been been composed by whomever it was that wrote the soundtrack to the Police Academy series of films.
An opening twenty-five minutes in which very little of note occurs – Japan seem more composed on the ball but hit a brick wall when they reach a point around forty-five yards from the French goal – affords an opportunity to get lost in the atmosphere of the day. Away behind the goals are clusters of noisy singers, ‘Allen les bleus! ‘ to our left and ‘Nippon! Nippon!’ to our right, whilst it is also possible to play a quick game of Football Short Spotting during the quieter passages of play – Finland, Fenerbahce and Reading amongst many others, in case you were wondering. After thirty-two minutes, however, Japan take the lead with their first meaningful attack when a free-kick from Aya Miyami is spilled – well, more like thrown everywhere – by the French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi – and, after an almighty to the point of being unseemly scramble, the ball is eventually poked over the line by Yuki Ogimi. It’s about as much excitement as the first half can muster, but if it had to be scored by either team then Japan probably just about deserved it.
Two minutes into the second half, Japan double their lead, and Bouhaddi again perhaps at fault with her positioning when another free kick into the penalty area allows Mizuo Sakaguchi to loop a free header over her and into the corner of the goal. And that, by any reckoning, should be that. With an hour played, though, French substitutions change the pace and timbre of the match. France lay siege to the Japanese goal and with a little over fifteen minutes to play Eugenie Le Sommer pulls the ball back for Elodie Thomis to drill an unstoppable shot in to drag France back into the game. The noise inside Wembley reaches a crescendo five minutes later when Le Sommer is tripped and France have the lifeline of a penalty kick. From twelve yards out, however, it all goes wrong. Elise Bussaglia sends Fukumoto the wrong way from the spot but drags her shot wide of the post. The final ten minutes belong to Fukumoto, who makes two quite brilliant saves and in stoppage time, with France having committed everybody forward in desperation, Ogimi breaks and hits the outside of the post for Japan.
There are further familiar scenes at the full time whistle, French players slumped to the turf while Japanese celebrations go on around them. Outside the stadium comes a less welcome familiarity as it takes an hour to shuffle the four hundred yards or so back to the underground station. On the train back into London, eyes are fixed to mobile phones with news of extraordinariness after extraordinariness filtering through from Old Trafford. We, however, have been thoroughly entertained by our afternoon at Wembley on a day which demonstrated in spades the excitement and tension that this tournament has offered throughout. The final, to be played tomorrow evening between Japan and the United States of America, promises to be an equally gripping occasion. It is to be hoped that matches such as these will build interest in womens football in this country. Greater investment may only come with greater interest from supporters and, while the Premier League will surely continue to sweep all before it once it’s hostilities recommence later this month, that womens football offers plenty of entertainment in its own right should now be without question.
You can see some inelegantly taken photographs of our trip to Wembley here.
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