The Olympic football was something I’d been really looking forward to since I booked tickets for Glasgow and Newcastle a number of months ago. OK, so the draw hadn’t been massively kind (Spain being the only obvious highlight), and I’d accidentally picked to see all 4 teams in group D twice (Thursday’s experience will be followed tomorrow by the same teams in Newcastle), but I was really looking forward to seeing some Olympic sport. Olympic football may suffer from various naysayers who say it’s pointless as it’s not the pinnacle of the sport, but again, I couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about it.
Martyn (my younger brother) was also looking forward to it, and so it was that we turned up at Hampden at about 11:30 full of expectation for the day’s entertainment. Two games were available for our delectation: Honduras v Morocco (which would turn out to be Martyn’s first international match) and the theoretical main event, Spain v Japan.
Honduras v Morocco, 12:00
To the action then, and first up was the alleged “diddy” match of the afternoon, between Morocco and Honduras. The first obvious thing was that this was not going to be your average crowd. Both anthems were well respected, with about 80% of the crowd standing for both the Moroccan and Honduran ditties, and they cheered both teams equally thereafter. When the Honduran players clapped the crowd before kick-off, we perhaps were swaying towards the chaps from Tegucigalpa.
It was pretty difficult, however, not to get caught up in how well the Moroccans played in the first half, and how well their band of musical supporters were keeping the crowd going. Morocco’s first good chance came when I was standing in the pie queue. A free kick from the left was planted on Houssine Kharja’s head rather nicely; his glancing header was wonderfully tipped wide by Jose Mendoza (Honduras’s 5″7 (yes, that’s 5 feet and 7 inches) keeper).
Morocco then took the lead on 40 minutes, somewhat out of the blue given the previous 39 minutes had been mostly sparring between the two sides (though Morocco had got a lot of joy up the Honduras left). It was an absolute peach though – some good work through the middle from Morocco found the ball at Barada’s feet, who swiftly volleyed low and hard into the bottom corner for 1-0.
Half time came with Morocco in the lead then. Martyn and I were pretty impressed with the Moroccans, particularly goalscorer Barada and (even more so) one of their overage players, Stephen Ireland-lookalikey Noureddine Amrabat. Arnold Peralta had probably been the pick of the bunch for Honduras, a buzzy, pacey midfielder who was perhaps not so easily knocked off the ball as the rest of his team-mates.
So to the second half, and Honduras came out at the break with rather more purpose and determination. This paid off after 55 minutes. Maynor Figueroa (who came rather more into things in the second 45 minutes) marauded down the left, hit a weak-ish shot which was deflected past the bamboozled Amsif in the Morocco goal by the fantastically named Jerry Bengtson.
Jerry’s day got a whole lot better 10 minutes later. A good run down the right and a searching ball across from my man Peralta was interrupted by Eddie Hernandez being felled in the area. Penalty for Honduras (a bit of a soft one too). Up stepped the aforementioned Mr Bengtson, who, after 3 or 4 minutes of petulance from the Moroccans, particuarly from Amsif, side-footed it very calmly down the middle of the goal for 2-1.
That lead lasted all of 2 minutes. Morocco’s best move of the second half ended with the ball at the feet of Labyad, who dinked it beautifully over the (short) Honduran keeper (via a deflection) for 2-2. Game on again.
The last notable action of the game occurred on 72 minutes. Zakarya Bergdich pointlessly kicked Mario Martinez after they got into a bit of a pointless tussle on the halfway line. Morocco were reduced to ten men; game on for Honduras.
Or so you would think. Rather than pushing on, the Hondurans seemed reasonably happy with their point. The match petered out, the last notable point for me being the (correctly) warm applause given to Noureddine Amrabat on his substitution; he was rather a class above his team-mates.
And so the first match was over. And what a match it was. Both sides had gone for the win, both had moments of great quality and there were 4 goals for the wholesome crowd to enjoy. What more do you want.
The first match, then, ended at 13:50. Spain v Japan kicked off at 14:45. What happened in between was largely a mass chucking balls about in the crowd game, and then the dreaded Mexican waves began. I despise Mexican waves (I can’t quite explain why, but it just feels like enforced, compulsory “fun” more than anything), but Martyn enjoyed himself so it wasn’t all bad. We did get our first glimpse of the players at about 14:15, and in a lovely touch, the Japanese squad approached the stand and bowed to the crowd before they got on with their training. Wonderfully respectful and very much in the spirit of the day.
Spain v Japan, 14:45
Things got underway with Hampden rather more full than it had been at 12:00 for the start of the Honduras v Morocco game (which I don’t get – pay for 2 games, turn up for 1. Why?). A lot of the crowd had turned up resplendent in red shirts, awaiting a Spanish masterclass in possession football. Although the Spain side did not contain Xavi or Iniesta, the likes of Juan Mata, Javi Martinez and Jordi Alba should still have produced some wondrous tiki-taka to blow Japan away.
This seemed to be the way of things with the two opening salvos coming from the Spanish. First, Benfica striker Rodrigo dragged a shot wide. Then Juan Mata cut in from the right and fired off a fierce shot with his left which was well dealt with by Gonda in the Japanese goal.
However, one thing was apparent from the first minute; the Japanese were not going to be tiki-taka’d out of the game. They kept a very high line throughout, and pressed the Spanish back four in particular with some tireless running from their front 3. In the 34th minute, Japan fashioned a corner on the near side, which was floated to the middle of the penalty area. Yuki Otsu, the Borussia Moenchengladbach forward, found himself there, utterly bereft of markers, and bundled one easily past David De Gea for the opening goal. Cue bedlam in the Hampden crowd who had rather sniffed the fact that the underdog could be about to bark big-time.
The Spanish defence were often being caught in possession due to the Japanese pressing game and this drew a chance for Keigo Higashi; however he could only stick it across the face of goal with nobody on the end of it. 3 minutes before the end of the first half, things got even better for Japan. Kensuke Nagai (more of him later) caught Inigo Martinez in possession and bundled his way towards the Spanish goal. Martinez took his revenge on the pacey Japanese forward, yanking him down by the shirt on the edge of the area. The American referee Mr Geiger was left with no alternative (in my view) but to send off Martinez and leave the World and European champions a goal and a man down at half time.
The second half has to go down as one of the most engrossing second halfs I’ve seen at a football match. There was something particularly great in not having too much emotionally invested in the game, though like the majority of the crowd I was right behind the Japanese. The first 15 minutes or so of the second half was incredible from a Japanese perspective; had they taken the chances they’d made, they would have been 4 or 5 up and Spain would’ve looked very much unlike World champions. Some wonderful midfield passing and incisive counter attacking set up Nagai, Higashi and Kiyotake in fairly quick succession; a combination of good goalkeeping and woeful finishing preventing Japan from extending their lead.
Spain then came back into it, threatening but never breaching Japan’s defence, led with aplomb by Maya Yoshida and Hiraki Sakai. Mata again provided Spain’s best chance of this spell, his near-post drive being uncomfortably turned round the upright by the pink-clad Gonda.
Nagai had been running his backside off the entire game; his tireless chasing and harrying of Spanish defenders had got the crowd completely on the side of the Asian giants. In 87 minutes, he again robbed a Spanish defender and bolted through on De Gea’s goal, only for his shot to be hit straight at the Manchester United keeper and be put out for a corner. One last chance came in stoppage time; a wonderful run down the right this time from Higashi, but Yamaguchi’s finish unfortunately left a lot to be desired.
When full-time came, the delight in the 37,000-strong crowd was palpable. A genuine shock result had been witnessed, and the sheer joy on the faces of the Japanese players made it all the sweeter. As we began to file out, we noticed that again some of the Japanese players had come to acknowledge the crowd and bow; we had to stop and applaud as they had put in a wonderful performance, particularly that man Nagai.
For both Martyn and me, it had been a surprisingly excellent day of football. Two sides of a similar level going at it hell for leather in the first game; a well-earned shock result derived from tactical nous and hard work in the second. Roll on St James’ Park tomorrow for Japan v Morocco and Spain v Honduras.
Scores and scorers on the day:
Honduras 2-2 Morocco (Bengtson x 2; Barrada, Labyad)
Spain 0-1 Japan (Otsu)