To one who had first watched and much enjoyed his first Olympic football back in 1948, admiring a dazzling Swedish team – Gren, Liedholm, the three Nordahl brothers – and reported the finals of 1960 when Britain’s all amateurs drew with the full Italian Under 21 side. 1964 in Tokyo and 1968 in Mexico, it was hard to understand the prevailing pessimism about the 2012 tournament in England itself; where a Great Britain team – though minus Scots and Irish – would figure for the first time for 52 years.
The reason seemingly being that there had been a glut of football, the Olympic tournament coming hot on the heels of the European Championship in which, however disappointingly, England had had a team. It was feared that interest would be slight, attendances low. Which baffled those of us who remember that in previous Olympiads, soccer has made more money than any other sport; even athletics.
Besides, it was felt that the Great Britain team under the aegis of former England left-back Stuart Pearce would be little better than a job lot of hastily assembled players. Which, to shrill alarm in places, would not include that contemporary icon David Beckham. Pearce having had the guts to ignore a 37-year-old footballer far past his best, for all the plethora of cheap England cameo caps he received under Fabio Capello. When GB were comfortably beaten 2-0 by a coruscating young Brazilian side in a pre tournament match, pessimism seemed justified. But in the event, what happened?
Even without Gareth Bale, arguably their best player, forced to withdraw from the GB squad with a back injury on medical advice and most unjustly condemned by the ineffable likes of FIFA’s Sepp Blatter – who thought he should be suspended because he recovered in surprising time to play for his club Spurs on tour in America, Pearce’s team surpassed themselves. While the likes of Holland and a Uruguay team including two world-class attackers in Cavani of Napoli and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, fell heavily by the wayside.
Soccer we know is a game of glorious surprises, but how to account for a Spain team which unlike its seniors still couldn’t score, for a Uruguay which succumbed 2-0 to an unfancied if bruising Senegal team, reduced for more than half the match to ten men; then beaten 1-0 by a GB side which had gone from strength to strength, with a Craig Bellamy in irresistible form on the right flank and a marvellous 18-year-old goalkeeper in Jack Butland yet to play a game for his club, Birmingham City. And the crowds! Over 80,000 at Wembley, 70,000 in Cardiff. So much for pessimism about fans’ interest in the tournament.
No real surprise that GB should go out against South Korea on penalties as England teams so often do. GB manager Stuart Pearce who missed one in Turin in the 1990 World Cup against Germany knows all about that. Butland for once was at fault on the Korean goal but made a super save in extra time. Aaron Ramsey scored one penalty (unconvincingly), disastrously missed a second but had the guts to be first to score in the shootout. So frustrating for GB, with Brazil the next opponents, had they won, made to look vulnerable indeed by a nine-man Honduras team who held them to a flimsy 3-2.
But credit to Japan, now fulfilling the promise one saw them show in the Mexican Olympics of 1968, when big Kamamoto was a formidable centre forward. That proved to be a false dawn, but, since then, Japanese soccer has gone from strength to strength. While the Mexicans themselves have enormously improved as they, too, have shown in a tournament which has been splendidly dramatic and surprising. But if only Gareth Bale could have played for Great Britain as, beyond all reasonable doubt, he would fervently have hoped to do!
As for Uruguay, how remote seemed the great tradition begun when their superb, if “shamateur”, teams won the Olympic title in 1924 and 1928, and in 1930, the first World Cup.