Olympics: Being There – Men’s Football

Senegal v Uruguay and GB v UAE at Wembley, Sunday 29 July 2012

Despite the minor mishaps, London 2012 has started well. There were none of the major problems in delivery past Host Cities have faced, with the issue of calling in the public services to bail out G4S typical of wider issues than those related to the Games. For over a week before the official opening the anticipation has been noticeable on commuter trains in and out of London, a dominant form of conversation between strangers who usually would otherwise be looking down at their phones. Likewise the Torch Relay’s journey through all 33 London Boroughs brought people and communities together both in deprived areas as well as at parties and in one-off events.

On a train out of London the night of the Opening Ceremony children from North Wales were excitedly talking about how they had met Athletes where they were “Guards of Honour”, an early example of Legacy and a reminder how sport can instantly inspire. It was a Ceremony that instilled pride in Britain and a great start to the Games, with the large TV audience answering cynics who cited apathy towards the cultural festival that the United Kingdom is lucky enough to have for two weeks.

On the first full day of action BBC’s new 24 channels quickly became sporting fan’s delight, a selection box with numerous sports attracting attention. In fact after Day 1 the only big disappointment were the empty seats at venues where demand was high and millions of applicants had previously been unsuccessful. There were few empty seats in Wembley Stadium by the time the Great Britain’s men football team kicked-off the second game of a double bill last night, with most of the vacant places caused by those still queuing for food and drink as the only debit card accepted for payment was no longer accepted for payment, as basic technology failed. Embarrassing for the sponsor that was given exclusivity and in-keeping with the other little blips from the mix-up of Korean flags and the Souvenir Programme labelling Joe Allen as English, all of which we can imagine as scenarios in the sit-com Twenty Twelve.

They are not big issues though and waiting for overpriced food of poor quality is nothing new for regular attendees at Wembley Stadium, and did nothing to dampen the positive mood in the ground. There were newcomers amongst the crowd – fans that were there that normally don’t attend England Games (or from what one bloke said to me, don’t even usually come to London) – as well as number of England shirts, sitting alongside those in the garish replica strip of Team GB, some in stands were other fans had displayed their Welsh flags.

There were also more Union Jacks at an International Game at Wembley since the early nineties, as the ambiguity over national identity – demonstrated before Team GB’s opening game when the Welsh players didn’t sing a National Anthem that is strangely sung by the England team – continued. For a team recently reformed there were no established songs in the crowd either, with a weak attempt at  a“GB” chant that was reliant on clapping and which would have been more in place at a tennis match or a proms concert than in a football crowd.

The annoying Mexican Wave, a novelty after the 1986 World Cup but now tiresome to real football fans, made its almost customary appearance at a national game in Wembley, as spectators who are there for the day out more than the sport have their moment of fun. The Wave was undoubtedly embraced by the bore who towards the very end tried to start “Oggy, Oggy, Oggy “chants and then “Ole, Ole, Ole” which fortunately no-one was silly enough to join in with. It is a worrying trend of manufactured atmosphere often encouraged by the Wembley announcer in other games, which kills real passion generated by fans; thankfully the annoying announcements were limited from the PA last night, but reports and coverage so far suggest we have that during this Olympics in the Beach Volleyball, where the sport is treated with less respect by organisers.

The football itself was very entertaining. The first game between Uruguay and Senegal was aesthetically pleasing even before the game kicked-off, as they lined-up in contrasting colourful but classically simple kits. Uruguay played a 4-3-3, with Edinson Cavani wasted out on the right while Senegal looked to express themselves on the ball at every opportunity. They took the lead from a corner, and even after going down to ten men with a refereeing that was the polar opposite of the lenient decisions they benefited from against Team GB last Thursday, they were calm on the ball, and increased their lead with a second goal from the corner.

Uruguay, who also looked the lesser side for long periods in their opening game against the UAE, showed little apart from hitting the post after a deflected free-kick, and wasting two one-on-ones either side of the break. Luis Suarez’s performance was only memorable as he was booed heavily throughout, the Wembley crowd making up for any Mexican Waves that were to follow by treating the man with no redeeming features with united disdain.

Team GB’s 4-3-3 was much more fluent in the second game, with Ryan Giggs, always composed on the ball, pulling the strings from the centre with the wonderful quality of always choosing the right option. He scored the opener after an intelligent run of the ball after initiating a team attack, nodding home a Craig Bellamy cross, his first goal in an international tournament another notch in a glorious career.

UAE, who looked so good to start with against Uruguay, didn’t really get a foothold into the game until the second-half, getting behind GB’s midfield too easily with simple passing and movement. They equalized with Jack Butland slow to come of his line and the balance and atmosphere instantly changed. Stuart Pearce made the strange decision to take of his best player, Giggs, but was fortunate that within a minute his replacement, Scott Sinclair was there to score a rebound after a good cross from Bellamy – who had moved to right in the change, with Ramsey going deeper – after Daniel Sturridge forced the UAE keeper to spill the ball.

Sturridge had looked off the pace against Senegal but was lively when he was introduced at half-time, playing trough the centre and with good movement as he led the line. His touch was good as well, and when he was played through and the UAE goalkeeper first came and then went before being caught in no-man’s land, he scored a beautiful chip to give Team GB a 3-1 win.

Any major sporting tournament is given a real boost by home success. The second half was made more memorable with those of us who were able to see via Twitter that Rebecca Adlington had won an unexpected medal in the pool, and the whole event at Wembley could have been made even better if other sports were shown at half-time on the big screen (which didn’t even have a clock that was visible at the other end during play). The only home success in football was expected from the women’s team, who play the excellent short passing and moving game that Hope Powell has the nucleus of her team playing for England. With the surprising news Spain went out last night, a medal in the men’s game is now not out of the question yet.

MG

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.