South Korea dominated the early stages of their men’s Olympic football semi-final against what Jonathan Pearce summed up perfectly as “a higgledy-piggledy mess” of a Brazil side. This led to the fleeting prospect of a South Korea v. Mexico final. And, as those two sides met at Newcastle in one of the tournament’s direst games, it was just as well the prospect was only fleeting. After the hyper-drama of the women’s semi-finals, the men’s efforts were always going to pale in comparison. And both games ran out of steam after entertaining first halves. Japan seemed unable to adapt to falling behind to an increasingly impressive Mexico, possibly because they hadn’t previously fallen behind in the tournament, having not conceded a goal in it.
With referee Pavel Kralovec seemingly under strict instructions not to award penalties to South Korea, their chances of causing an upset – very much alive for 50 minutes – evaporated. And when Brazil went three-up, on 65 minutes, the game evaporated as a spectacle, with Brazil under equally strict instructions to score only three goals in every match. The Japanese pinged the ball round Wembley much as their women’s team had 24 hours earlier, except the men remembered to stick an “end product” on the…well…end – Yuki Otso tagging a stunning 20-yard drive onto the end of a slick passing move in the 12th minute. “Ah, it’s beautiful,” cooed the BBC’s Mark Bright.
The Mexicans weren’t in it for the first quarter and had only gradually got a foothold in the game when they equalised. Japanese captain Maya Yoshida lost his rag with the referee’s assistant who missed a clear offside before Mexico won a 31st-minute corner. Giovanni Dos Santos (“who plays his football in this city for Tottenham Hotspur…if only now and again” – BBC commentator Steve Wilson) planted said kick onto Jorge Enriquez’s bald head at the near-post and Marco Fabian nodded in Enriquez’s flick-on. Both sides strung some flowing moves together either side of the break. But as the second half wore on, the game wore out, until Oribe Peralta intervened. “At least it’s a shot on target,” sighed Bright, as Peralta fired a left-foot drive at Japanese keeper Suichi Gonda. And the TV director was grateful for the first chance to show an action replay in ages.
Unfortunately this co-incided with Japan’s Takahiro Ohgihara tying himself in knots trying to play his way out of defence. Peralta was onto the momentarily loose ball in a flash and the live TV pictures only returned as Peralta’s stunning 25-yarder left his right boot on the way to the top corner of the net, Gonda diving full-length but not getting near it, in the photogenic way of all the best-remembered goals. Bright rightly suggested the game had needed a goal and Wilson was probably right to suggest that a Mexican goal – especially one like that – would do the contest more good still. Yet Japan floundered. Despite some fine link play from substitute Kenyu Sugimoto, they barely created a chance in the final quarter. “They are showing a lot of patience for a team that needs a goal,” said Wilson, hankering for a few long balls into the box. Those of us who had admired Japan throughout the tournament were thinking their ‘patience’ would pay off, and show these Premier League ‘up-and-at-them” fans how to play the game properly. But in truth, Japan were just lost. And Mexico won and kept possession so well in that final quarter that substitute Javier Cortes’s stoppage-time goal, after a lovely set-up by Fabian, only flattered them fractionally.
Garth Crooks, the BBC’s roving reporter at the Brazil/South Korea, marvelled at the amount of yellow and green on show inside Old Trafford, which made you wonder how many scarves were being worn for the first time since the ’Green and Gold’ campaign against Man Yoo owners, the Glazers. Crooks wasn’t thinking along such lines. But he was to star in the broadcast soon enough. First, though, Mark Lawrenson had issues to deal with. He must have had money on a Team GB semi-final, or Manchester City drawing at Sunderland in the EPL last season, as Ji-Dong Won, who scored against Britain in the quarter-finals here and nabbed a last-kick winner against City, received an evening of verbal sniping. Ji has had his critics, me included. But against Brazil he was lively enough, especially in those early shock-on-the-cards exchanges. He would have scored after 12 minutes in what ultimately proved the game’s pivotal moment, but for nearly having his head removed from his shoulders by Brazil centre-back Juan’s block on his goalbound, close-range header.
And he had two speculative long-range efforts as Korea began to struggle to keep in the game, neither of which cleared the crossbar by much, both of which were ridiculed by Lawrenson (“went quite high in the end,” he noted, over footage of the ball flying inches over). Lawrenson made snide comments almost every time Ji got the ball until finally blaming him for his side’s eventually convincing defeat, noting that Brazilian striker Leandro scored twice from two chances while Ji missed all four of his. “That’s the difference,” concluded Lawrenson, ignoring the lack of evidence that Leandro would have converted any of Ji’s chances…or that Ji would have squandered Leandro’s.
The “difference” was that Brazil were eventually the better side. They improved steadily as the first half progressed and were on top by the time Romulo opened the scoring, making Korean keeper Lee-Bum Young look a little foolish by taking his shot early without hitting it cleanly – the ball rolling slowly into the net as Lee dived over it. Crooks had been more impressed than Pearce with the Brazilians, to the extent that he lost the ability to count and marvelled (in a clip destined for YouTube) at their “4-2-1-3-1” formation. To be fair to Crooks, you could see the realisation on his face by the time he got to the “3” that he was going to struggle to fit ten outfield players into this formation – unless he was so impressed by Brazil’s movement off the ball that he genuinely thought one of them could be in two places at once.
Back at the BBC3 studio, Jake Humphrey was corpsing childishly (if entertainingly) and got a fulsome apology from a penitent Crooks before eventually noting, correctly, that “you’d win a lot of games with a formation like that.” Studio pundit Robbie Savage wasn’t for joining in though, leaping to Crooks’ defence with an admonishing “we knew what Garth meant.” Savage was probably right in this instance, but having a clue what Crooks was going on about was an entirely new concept for most viewers. The referee was clearly as befuddled as Crooks, however. Otherwise he would have given the Koreans a 49th-minute penalty for Sandro’s ultra-clumsy foul on Kim-Bok Yung (Savage’s co-pundit, former England captain Martin Keown, later categorised Brazil’s general defending as clumsy…and he should know..).
Kralovec’s ‘play on’ signal was effectively the full-time whistle as far as the result was concerned. And Brazil’s requisite third goal was effectively full-time as far as the score and entertainment was concerned (Keown later referenced Brazil’s “flicks and tricks” during this period, but they must only have been on the red button – BBC3 didn’t show any). Brazil’s second-half goals resembled their general display. Marcelo and Neymar awkwardly but successfully opened up Korea’s defence before Marcelo slipped as he tried to shoot, fortuitously leaving Leandro with a clear shot from 12 yards which, as previously discussed, even Ji would have netted. And Leandro neatly made it three-nil after a silky but aimless Neymar run and a short pass to Oscar, whose attempt at a return pass deflected almost straight to the striker, who left Lawrenson apparently admiring the skills of Leandro’s podiatrist – “great feet, brilliant feet.”
With Brazils allergic to a fourth goal and the Koreans largely disheartened, Pearce had time revisit the 1970s, pondering how Oscar would fare against EPL relegation battlers “in February, March, April… on a Tuesday/Wednesday night.” Before Pearce could ponder why black players struggle in the winter, Lawrenson produced a timely “have you seen much South American football?” (and credit to Lawrenson for this). Pearce just read out the Brazilian league top-two, which stood in for the real answer of “no, I’m just talking ill-informed, borderline-racist bollocks.” Pearce later suggested Mexico would struggle against Brazil’s “physicality” in the final; this THREE days after Mexico dealt with Senegal’s physicality rather brilliantly. If only Pearce had declared at “higgledy-piggledy mess.” He might have retained the faintest hope of being the BBC’s top football commentator again.
The Gold and Bronze medal matches are about the best available from the semi-final line-up. Japan against South Korea would be warm even without Olympic bronze at stake. Brazil’s attacking prowess we know. And Wembley (if not Pearce) has seen, twice, what Mexico can do if they are allowed to play, as Brazil’s defensive set-up surely will. A decent conclusion to a decent tournament is in prospect.
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