The dust is very gradually settling on an almost entirely successful London Olympic Games. And the BBC aren’t about to let us forget how good they were, as they had as successful a Games as anybody – even “Square Eyes”, the TV critic in satirical magazine Private Eye, gave the BBC’s Games coverage a great review, and (s)he never gives great reviews. So most of the sneering so far, in the newspapers I’ve read and the conversations I’ve had, has been directed at the football; particularly, though not exclusively, the men’s football. And this criticism has been misplaced. It has overlooked the (high) quality of the two tournaments themselves in favour of sniping at Great Britain’s, or Team GB’s place and participation in them. And it has disingenuously contrasted the grace and humility of so many Olympians with the distinct lack of same shown by “football”, by which most critics mean the English Premier League or England’s relatively colourless Euro 2012 squad.
The Olympics has temporarily usurped the weather as the general British conversation ice-breaker. Asked my Olympic opinion by a friend on Monday, I offered: “didn’t watch much of it, nice to see such a healthy, non-jingoistic patriotism, the football was really good,” and was met with a rant-and-a-half. The football was “a disgrace”, she said, compared to the honesty and integrity of all these athletes who have worked so hard for so long at great personal and financial cost while those Premier League players get all that money and can barely grunt through a sentence. “I hope the Premier League takes a real hit because of this,” she concluded. Amid her rant, there were some pertinent points. But they are, metaphorically, for another article. “I was talking about the Olympic football at these Games; did you see much of that?” I asked her. And after a rant-ette about Dean (sic) Sturridge’s penalty technique (“why didn’t he just run up and hit it like everyone else instead of trying to be clever”), she admitted that, no, she hadn’t.
Even before this Olympic football tournament began, it was under heavy fire for reasons of varying relevance. A remarkable short piece by highly-experienced and talented sportswriter Michael Colvin in The Independent on Sunday on the first weekend of the Games, ‘explained’ why football “has no relevance to the human dramas which will enthral, and occasionally appal, over the next fortnight.” Football “should not be in the Olympic Games because the Olympics are not the sport’s primary event.” Unlike, say, tennis. It was absurd that the GB Women’s team should be “’launching’ the London Games, in Cardiff, 53 hours before the Opening Ceremony.” When told that “football can’t fit a six-match tournament schedule” into a 16-day Olympics,” he noted that “Er, hockey manages rather well in its time frame.” Yes, with 70-minute matches rather than 90. And the Football Association were lambasted for their “pathetic and utterly predictable” cynicism in using the Games’ opening ceremony “to bury the news of disciplinary action against John Terry,” which was relevant to the Olympic football tournament for reasons Colvin neglected to make clear.
This was all as infuriating as if I’d typed 500 words on the 2012 Olympic football tournaments while barely mentioning its actual football…ah…hang on… And the football was good. Some of it was great. There were countless examples of matches played in an “Olympic spirit.” Women’s international football tournaments I’ve watched since the mid-1990s have largely been played in that sort of spirit anyway. But the cynicism which blots the landscape of men’s internationals was all the more remarkable when it did appear because it so rarely appeared. Even the Hondurans, who allowed themselves the occasional dive, multi-roll and imaginary yellow card, were taken to Newcastle hearts by their demeanour and generosity off the pitch. The women’s tournament could have fallen foul of predictability in its group stages, with seven of the eight quarter-finalists selecting themselves from the field of twelve. But there were still some terrific displays – two of which, arguably, came from the tournament’s least successful team.
Colombia were pointless and scoreless but would have had a goal difference of much worse than minus six but for a stellar display from injured netminder Sandra Sepulveda. The BBC highlights reveal a string of good and great saves. And they don’t even include my personal favourite. And some might have had a soft spot for defender Lady Andrade for the black eye she gave the talented-but-dirty American striker Abby Wambach, if such an attitude wasn’t so inappropriate for these Games (ahem…). Neither South Africa nor Cameroon played well. Cameroon were far enough off the pace to convert most of their physical tackling into borderline assaults. They were skilful on the ball but brutal off it. Just ask Team GB’s Kelly Smith. South Africa will have fonder memories and that feeling will be mutual. The 0-0 draw they eked out against Japan in Cardiff may seem tarnished by the revelation that a draw suited Japan as they wanted to stay in Cardiff for their quarter-final, rather then travel to Glasgow. But the South Africans fashioned opportunities themselves and a 1-0 defeat might have sent Japan to Coventry, which would not have suited. And for all the best efforts of America’s Carli Lloyd, Portia Modise’s 45-yard strike against Sweden remains my personal goal of the tournament.
Korea DPR were disrupted more by the mischief Kim Song Hui did herself in scoring against Colombia than by any inappropriate flag on the Hampden Park scoreboard. She twisted particularly awkwardly in taking her shot and didn’t realise the extent of her misfortune until some way into her goal celebration. They lacked a goal threat to give their defence some respite against their group’s star turns, and they missed out on the knock-out stages thanks mostly to a late, exhausted collapse against the French. Canada were only a best third-placed team in a group, despite finishing third overall. But that was entirely down to the group in which they came third. Their opening game defeat against Japan was reminiscent of their under-achievement at last year’s World Cup. After that, they were unrecognisably better. They got lucky in the bronze medal match, stealing a late winner in a game where they were largely second-and occasionally third-best. But they weren’t lucky against Sweden or Team GB. And against the Americans…my feelings on that match have not changed or mellowed with the passage of time.
Team GB’s exasperatingly traditional quarter-final exit to the Canadians has benefitted with the passage of time, although they still played disappointingly in that match. Sophie Houghton’s previous goalscoring exploits from full-back were a joy. And their Wembley victory over Brazil will have an iconic status to outlast Brazil’s own deficiencies on the night. New Zealand were pluckiness personified. And if their thwarting of Brazil for 85 minutes failed to make for a great spectacle – or look quite so impressive given what Brazil did next – it was still indicative of a fast-progressing side. Hopefully, their likely regular qualification for major tournaments will compensate for the lack of quality opposition in that qualification. And if they could unearth a goalscorer… Brazil didn’t lack any of them. But they lacked almost everything else. Marta cannot have had a worse tournament. When she and striker Cristiane weren’t on song, Brazil looked very ordinary indeed. And they were frankly outplayed by both Japan and Team GB. In terms of matching expectations, Brazil were the tournament’s biggest failures.
The quarter-final pairing of Sweden and France denied medal hopes to at least one medal hope. And for their extra flair, the French were more deserving of their continuing hopes. Sweden worked hard and were a little unlucky that injury to ‘combative’ midfielder Nilla Fischer denied them the extra drive to capture the imagination of those watching, or capture all three points against the Japanese. Sara Thunebro provided bursts of inspiration. And if there was an award for chasing lost causes, it would have been striker Lotta Schelin’s. But Sweden were just too ordinary at key moments. France were anything but ordinary, apart from supposed star Louisa Necib in midfield. If she was to be likened to Zinedine Zidane, it was the 2004 version. More fun was to be had watching Elodie Thomis haring down the right flank, Wendie Renard flying into tackles and throwing herself at corners, or the joint winners of the “Why am I sub?” award, Eugenie Le Sommer and Camille Abily. Most influential for France in the later stages, alas, was goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi – an occasional and rare reminder of the poor goalkeeping standards which have blighted women’s international tournaments but which were otherwise brilliantly eradicated here.
Team USA and Japan had two of the three best keepers of the tournament, and were the outstanding sides in it. And their final was a wonderful evocation of all that was best in the tournament. Japan’s football was neat, tidy and purposefully quick. In Miho Fukumoto, they had the tournament’s joint-best short goalkeeper, alongside Canada’s Erin McLeod. And after sluggishly doing just enough to qualify from their group, Japan dispelled the lingering suspicion that they “got lucky” to even reach last year’s World Cup Final, let alone win it. I can’t pretend to stand Team bloody USA, with their arrogance, charmlessness and, let’s be frank, occasionally dirty and violent play. “Only Abby Wambach knows…” said the BBC’s Guy Mowbray, pondering the intent of Wambach’s studs-up challenge on Canadian midfielder (and potential shoot-out penalty-taker…by the way) Sophie Schmidt late in their semi-final. Everyone else watching had a fair idea. They were, however, the best team in the tournament by quite a bit. And with players such as Christine Rampone (my player of the tournament), Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan, you can almost forgive them Wambach, Lauren (at times, Lon) Cheney and Hope Bloody Solo.
The men’s tournament will mostly be remembered for a fantastic set of quarter-finals. But there were hidden gems in the group games, most notably Egypt’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand at Old Trafford one Sunday lunchtime, which was almost a chance a minute by the end, with the Oly-Whites’ limited outfit contributing fully to the fun. Egypt and fellow North Africans Morocco played some fantastic football in their shorter-than-deserved stays in the tournament. Morocco’s opening fixture against Honduras took a while to get going in front of little more than a gathering at Hampden Park, one Thursday lunchtime. But it was a belter once it did. And even though Morocco were unfairly left a man light after an altercation between two players who both could/should have seen red, they still could/should have gone on to win the game. In the end, two excellent goals by Abdelaziz Barrada and Zakaria Labyad were snuffed out by a fluky rebound and a twice-taken penalty.
An early exit by Honduras would, however, have denied us the exploits of my man of the men’s tournament, midfielder Roger Espinoza, perpetual motion personified and almost bound to suffer referees’ wrath simply by the volume of tackles he put in. The Hondurans’ shock win over under-achieving Spain was a delight. The Spanish, after 135 minutes of pedestrian football, finally got their act together just as it was becoming too late. All the focus was on Euro 2012 full-back Jordi Alba, and Euro final goalscorer Juan Mata. But their inspiration was 19-year-old Athletic Bilbao midfielder Iker Muniain. If the “next Lionel Messi” was playing in the tournament, it was this confident, passionate young man, not flatterer-to-deceive Neymar, whose occasional brilliance and occasional brittleness personified Brazil’s overall tournament.
The Selecao’s opening match against Egypt looked destined to be the match of the tournament, with the Pharaohs’ expansive style of play nearly snatching a point from a hopeless half-time position. And Brazil’s inability to string 90 top-form minutes together was evident from this very first game. This didn’t matter so much against New Zealand and a fatally-unambitious Belarus. But it was nearly their undoing against Honduras. It could have been their undoing if they hadn’t had all the luck going in their semi-final, and it was their undoing in the final. Jonathan Pearce rather too quickly wrote off Brazil’s chances of winning the 2014 World Cup. “With this team…on this evidence they are not good enough,” he said, without suggesting who might be good enough to beat them when they have two years extra experience and their more talented overage players. But they did get lazy as the competition progressed. And defeat in the final sort of served them right. “On this evidence,” Brazil won’t be beaten by anybody European. Like Belarus, Switzerland’s contribution to the Olympic spirit was minimal. The expulsion of midfielder Michel Morganella for the incongruous-sounding but dismal offence of racist tweeting summed up their tournament neatly – scruffy and surly, even though, in Innocent Emeghara – they had the most delightfully-named player in the tournament.
Alongside Spain in the disappointing under-achievers column was Gabon. A good number of their Olympic squad had played a part in their occasionally thrilling contribution to the African Cup of Nations which they co-hosted in January. None of them scaled such heights here, their game with South Korea unworthy of its Wembley venue. Also in this column were Uruguay whose policy of adding a potentially world-class overage strike partnership to an otherwise mediocre group of underage players failed in the face of chronic indifference from Edinson Cavani – winner of the tournament’s waste of space award. Luis Suarez may have been the panto villain of the tournament. But his efforts deserved much better support than…that. The United Arab Emirates flattered to deceive for long periods of all of their games, only being genuinely unlucky to lose to Uruguay. Their neat passing was on a par with anything from the Spanish and Japanese. But their under-achievement was on a par with at least the Japanese.
Japan took full advantage of Spain’s first-match torpor and numerical disadvantage. And with only adequate finishing they could have made their result against the pre-tournament favourites even more eye-catching than it was. Like their women, they played out a ghastly 0-0 draw in their final group game. But there were times in their victories against Morocco and Egypt when they similarly retreated into their shell. And they were undone by their tactical ineptitude once they went behind. There were more than enough good young players in their squad to suggest that they are a coming force – Yuki Otsu’s goal in their semi-final said that by itself. But they were horribly exposed when the going got tough. South Korea managed that in the highly-charged Bronze Medal match, a clash of the neat-and-tidiest passers of the ball which turned into the most un-Olympian of contests. It was about the only time that the Koreans stirred any considerable passion. And whether it was just the Crystal Palace kit they wore for three of their games, but I just couldn’t warm to them.
Few warmed to Team GB either, even among Team GB supporters. The difficulty in finding a suitable ‘chant’ for those followers was perhaps more to do with a general apathy than any problems getting a one-word song to scan. This would probably have changed had Daniel Sturridge scored the winning rather than losing penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out. The team were eventually worn down by the appalling lack of preparation time afforded them, the self-importance of Premier League managers when it came to making players available – a self-importance which will soon hopefully come back to haunt them – and the tradition of going out of tournaments in the quarter-finals on penalties proving even stronger than the Olympic tradition itself. I leave Mexico and Senegal to last because they were my favourite teams, mostly though not entirely because of their classic quarter-final meeting.
The women’s semi between Canada and the States was the best of the tournament because of the raw excitement it added to the quality football. But the clash of styles between short-passing Mexico and powerful Senegal, each chock full of pace, was a joy to behold, particularly as both sides created chance-upon-chance, even in extra-time over the soundtrack of the BBC’s Mark Bright telling us how cagey extra-time periods are. Senegalese tackling was fractionally off the pace and just in the reckless column in their opening fixture, with Team GB the main recipients and Ryan Giggs the main complainer. But they improved with each game and grabbed hearts and minds in beating Uruguay with only ten men for most of the match. And the Mexicans played the classic tournament, again improving with each match, Oribe Peralta and Giovanni Dos Santos proving the tournament’s most potent front two when they were brought together and Dos Santos’s injury leaving Peralta as the tournament’s most potent front one.
I usually review the TV coverage in some detail. But I’ll mostly spare you here as the football largely spoke for itself and across the various BBC digital and red button channels, commentators spoke for and by themselves, which proved – as if proof were needed – that Mark Bright, Mark Lawrenson et al are simply not needed. Lucy Ward and Jo Potter were a contrast in co-commentary styles – i.e. Ward had some. And Guy Mowbray and Ward have been co-commentating on women’s football for some time now, which clearly showed – they were as complementary to the action, and humorous, as Pearce and Lawrenson tried to be…but weren’t.
Football’s “right” to be in the Olympics isn’t just based on the quality of the competitions, although if it was, no-one could deny its’ presence. It belongs in the Olympics mainly because it is the world game and has been in almost every Olympics. Yes, the ethos of Premier League football may be about as un-Olympian as possible. But the Premier League is only be one incarnation of football – something many domestic pundits appear to have forgotten. And I share my friend’s hope that the Premier League will suffer in comparison to the grace, humility, spirit and quality sport on display during the Olympic Games – by the Olympic footballers as much as anyone else.
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