Only a few souls got into Newcastle’s St. James’s Park in time to see Mexico play South Korea in the two sides’ men’s Olympic football tournament group game. And their emotions now probably range between smug (“I saw the Gold and Bronze medalists playing each other”) and disbelieving (“I saw the Gold and Bronze medalists playing each other???”). That wretched 0-0 draw was one of the tournament’s worst games. It was certainly in the tournament’s worst group. It gave no indication whatsoever that the tournament’s first and third best teams were on view. And if any of those present tell their grandchildren they were there, they won’t dwell on the match itself any longer than it took Mexico to score in Saturday’s final against Brazil.
Mexico weren’t even the better side on that grey Newcastle day. But they got better with each game, in the manner of more than one team in international tournament football over the years (think Italy in the 1982 World Cup, unable to beat Poland, Peru and pre-famous Cameroon before springing their own surprise on Brazil and eventually beating the world…including Poland again). They made light of striker Giovanni Dos Santos’ injury halfway through their semi-final win. Dos Santos’s dangerous strike partner Oribe Peralta took centre-stage in photogenic fashion with his stunning goal against Japan and, for different reasons, his equally stunning goal in the final. And while they were far less expansive and joyous against Brazil than against Senegal and Japan, there was no doubting that they out-thought and, possibly to the surprise of BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce, out-muscled Mano Menezes’ hot favourites.
To be fair to Pearce and others who had tried to forecast the pattern of the final… sorry… Gold Medal match, a goal after 29 seconds of any game will change its complexion and metaphorically tear up any pre-match team talks. But even in that 29 seconds, the BBC’s Mark Lawrenson still managed to some trademark lazy, stereotypical punditry, which is an achievement of sorts, I suppose. “With the sun on their backs, I think we’ll see the best of Brazil today,” he noted, just as “Manchester United’s Rafael da Silva” harmlessly picked up possession by the right-hand touchline and looked for options. It was a goal made in the Premier League, with Rafael putting Tottenham midfielder Sandro under un-necessary pressure before Javier Aquino nipped in to set up Peralta for his second stunner in three days.
The goal did conform to other Brazilian football stereotypes; including the “wonky goalkeeper” one which manifested itself in Brazil’s opening game. There, it was Neto. Here, it was Gabriel, who managed the neat trick of diving low to his right to save Peralta’s shot, only to end up further away from it. From then until half-time, the liveliest Brazilian was coach Menezes, understandably so, as his job disappeared before his very eyes, the Brazilian equivalent of a P45 looming larger with every misplaced pass, wrongly-taken option or failed Neymar trick (i.e. every Neymar trick). Hulk’s 32nd-minute introduction lifted Brazil and he nearly hammered in one of the goals of the tournament from a genuinely “fully” 35 yards. Much was made of the ball swerving in the air, making keeper Jose Corona’s save more difficult, yet it was the nanosecond it took to travel from boot to goalline which probably caused most problems.
The BBC’s Jake Humphrey thought Robbie Savage’s suggestion that the Brazilians weren’t “at it” was almost beneath Brazil. Yet you sort of knew what both meant – unlike Garth Crooks’ mind-bending intervention. This was not so much for what Crooks said as for the way he leant towards the camera, giving the real “frighten-the-kids” impression that his head was actually a balloon, a theory given greater credence by his words. Mark Bright’s clichéd suggestion that Brazil “couldn’t play any worse” in the second half rang true. And Brazil were a bit more “at it” in the third quarter. So too, however, was Mexican centre-back Diego Reyes, who must have heard Crooks’ half-time paean to him (but not seen it, obviously). For all Brazil’s pressure, Corona hardly had a sniff of a save, almost entirely thanks to Reyes’ longer-and-longer legs.
Before the key moments of the second half, there was time for Pearce to quote William Blake’s Jerusalem for no obvious match-related reason. The Wembley pitch was green, it was pleasant (certainly compared to Cardiff’s) and it is in England. But that simply meant… Guy Mowbray is the BBC’s top commentator. Pearce was as pretentious as Jerusalem itself (“and did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?” No.) and one imagines the BBC gave him this game because it considered the women’s tournament the more important. By the time Pearce was evoking images of “big spanks on the bottom for Brazilian players,” Mowbray had a job for life. This “big spank” was Marco Fabien’s first glorious chance to double Mexico’s advantage, when he closed down the lumbering Thiago Silva (“I’ve seen cheese turn quicker” as an old mate used to say) and hit the crossbar after Gabriel forced him wide.
“Two-nil, that would have been game over,” noted Lawrenson, not unreasonably, even though it didn’t quite turn out that way. It was nearly “game over” when Brazil joined the increasing queue of defences unable to deal with flick-ons from Jorge Enriquez’s bald, shiny and – you would have thought – attention-grabbing pate. Fabian headed over the goal which had long since lacked the wandering Gabriel. And on 75 minutes it was “game over.” Both Pearce and Lawrenson had started to insert “well done, Mark Clattenburg” into their conversation, praising the “Team GB” officials. Again, to be fair, Clattenburg did have a fine, authoritative game and the co-ordination with his assistants led to good decisions which might not otherwise have been made. But the free-kick decision against Brazilian left-back Marcelo, which led directly to Mexico’s second goal, was as vital as it was wrong. And, curiously, the nationality of the assistant responsible was unimportant.
Peralta left his marker (Hulk) about six yards in his wake to head home Fabian’s free-kick. And, as has happened before in this tournament, he was soon subbed, before he had a chance of a hat-trick – are there International Olympic Committee regulations against giving away matchballs? While he departed to cheers, “Manchester United’s Rafael” departed to boos, his substitution a possible life-saving gesture by Menezes as Rafael looked ready to square-up to the much-bigger Juan after the two of them messed up a passing move. Pearce claimed the crowd’s hostility came from fans of “other Premier League” teams, who clearly forgot to boo him for the previous 86 minutes. Even in a tournament which showed that football’s world does not revolve around the “EPL” – and can be all the better for not doing so – Pearce had to find a Premier League angle. Depressing.
Then, unexpectedly, Mexico’s defence dissolved in front of a 70-yard hit-and-hope from Marcelo, Hulk scored from it and, with two minutes stoppage-time left, the game was unexpectedly not “over.” Indeed, it should have been at least thirty minutes from over, as one of Hulk’s deftest touches, a perfectly-chipped cross to the near-post, found Oscar unmarked five yards out and Oscar… missed. However, an equaliser would have been as unjust as it would have been remarkable.
South Korea’s 2-0 win against Japan was just as worthy, although It came in perhaps the nastiest match of the competition. Blood was spilled on both sides and the Koreans benefitted from what appeared to be an organised effort to take Japan’s dangerous Yuki Otsu out of proceedings as early as possible. After three Koreans received yellow cards for fouls on him, it was little surprise that Otsu expected a fourth clattering as he contested possession in the 38th minute. But his anticipatory dive was just that, a dive, and within five seconds, Korea’s Park Chu-Young was bearing down on Japan’s goal, cutting inside the three defenders who caught up with him and firing a low right-foot shot past keeper Shuichi Gonda at his near post.
The Japanese were bereft of ideas when they went behind to Mexico in the semi-final. And when a spell of measured possession after the interval was broken down by Korea’s second goal, they appeared just as bereft here. Last weekend, Japan looked like a prospective dominant force in both men’s and women’s football, with their ability to control games via a combination of neat passing and never-ending patience. The men’s loss of patience and lack of a Plan B did for their medal hopes and ultimately shoved them off the podium entirely. Korea’s decisive goal was the result of the sort of long-ball Mark Bright had been berating them for since the first whistle. Koo Ja-Cheol’s finish was classier than that might suggest, however. And they were worthy winners of the bronze medal match, even if there was considerable competition for actually being the third-best team. And Mexico may have scuffed their way out of the tournament’s worst group (not quite a group of death, but close). But their knock-out stage victories were worthy of champions – winning the tournament’s best match, against Senegal, and in some style too.
There was less style about the final itself, which was a stop-start, mildly frustrating affair. Pearce and Lawrenson rightly detected a different, more intense, atmosphere than at other games in the tournament and likened it to the atmosphere at a “real” football match. It’s a shame, then, that the refreshing, positive football of much of the men’s (and nearly all of the women’s) tournament, isn’t the “real” game at all.
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