Honours and Sport

A bit more off-topic action in today’s post. There has been rather a lot of discussion in the last few days as to how, and indeed if, the UK’s various gold, silver and bronze medallists from the recent Olympics should be rewarded by their nation. Knighthoods have been suggested for some (particularly for Bradley Wiggins and, to a slightly lesser degree, Mo Farah), and the debate has now centred on where the cut-off is. Should all the gold medallists get at least an MBE? All medallists get at least an MBE?

The issue the Main Honours Advisory Committee (the “Committee”) now has in recommending honours to the Queen for New Year is that, in the past, they have rather been thrown around like sweeties. Given the precedents set, it might be difficult for the Committee to do anything but hand out at least MBEs to at least every gold medallist. The following give some interesting past examples of Honours which were perhaps handed out a bit too hastily:

Paul Collingwood

One of the more controversial sporting honours recipients (courtesy of Binguyen on Wikipedia)

Paul Collingwood MBE – New Year’s Honours List, 2006

Paul Collingwood is a fine cricketer, and was a sound international cricketer, no question, who served his country well. What is perhaps less clear is his contribution to the Ashes in 2005, which led to him and his team-mates all receiving, at the very least, MBEs. Collingwood was in the squad throughout that relatively historic series, but didn’t feature until the fifth Test at the Oval. His contributions of 7 in the first innings and a fairly gutsy 10 in the second helped England over the line to draw that final Test and win the series outright.

What I’m a bit less clear on is why those actions deserved an MBE. Yes, he was part of a winning team, but his 17 runs compared with Kevin Pietersen’s 473 is a bit on the low side. Indeed, you could argue Gary Pratt provided a more defining moment in those Ashes, and all he got was a trip on the booze cruise to Downing Street. To be fair to “Colly”, his contributions in the 2009 series in particular possibly absolve him of some of the disdain for his honour, but the timing was a bit off.

Robbie Earle MBE – Birthday Honours, 1999

Robbie Earle has always struck me as a likeable, if slightly misguided and overpaid, chap. His MBE in 1999 was for services to football. Having had a bit of a scout about, I’m not entirely sure what he did above and beyond playing for Wimbledon and Jamaica to receive such an honour, although he does seem to have done a lot for Kick Racism Out of Football. Having said that, in 1999, Helen Rollason (the late BBC sports reporter) also received an MBE for her charity work and fighting terminal cancer while still appearing on the news with regularity. Robbie was the captain of Wimbledon. I’m not having a go at him; I’m pointing out that perhaps the honours system works in a bizarre fashion, and continues to do so.

Sir Nick Faldo – Birthday Honours, 2009

There’s no doubt that Nick Faldo achieved a lot in his career. A fine golfer, a worthy winner of six major championships (3 Masters, 3 Opens). His last major triumph came in 1996, defeating Greg Norman in the Masters in an incredible final round turnaround. He’s designed golf courses, captained a wildly unsuccessful (by modern standards) European Ryder Cup team and been annoying on the telly since. His knighthood in 2009 for “services to golf” was, therefore, something of a surprise; at the rate Rory McIlroy is going with major wins he can expect an knighthood at least before he’s 30.

Barry Ferguson MBE – Birthday Honours, 2006

To be (vaguely) fair to Barry Ferguson, it’s perhaps his conduct since the receipt of his MBE which has made him seem particularly undeserving of the award. He’d hardly been a 28-year-old angel up to that point, but his conduct during the World Cup 2010 qualifiers in particular make those 3 letters after his name seem rather disingenuous. Barry had seemingly done a lot of work for the Rangers Charity Trust to go towards the receipt of his award. Nevertheless, a Scottish footballer who’s won a few titles and did a bit of charity work, then gave the world the finger on live television is a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Based on the list above, then, and no doubt countless other examples that some may care to mention, there is a difficult balance to be struck when it comes to Olympic honours. It’ll be interesting to see how the Committee chooses who gets what. Given the precedents previously set, someone will no doubt emerge from this process, come 1 January 2013 (although thats when they’re announced, the potential recipients find out rather earlier), a little upset.

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The London 2012 Olympic Games

This is, I realise, a little off-topic for a football blog but I felt I couldn’t let the Games go entirely without commenting on their undoubted success from my point of view.

Inspire a Generation

If this Games hasn’t, nothing will.

I love the Olympics, and therefore a home Olympics is something I’ve been looking forward to since the announcement was made by Jacques Rogge (“are awarded to the city of….LONEDONE”)  in that mad week in July 2005. They’ve held a certain mystique for me ever since I did a “personal project” on the Summer Olympics in Primary 7. Names like Jesse Owens, Ray Ewry, Olga Korbut and Steve Redgrave suddenly became familiar to me. I can still pretty reliably name the host cities of every Summer Olympics (though I do get a bit mixed up now in the 1910s and 1920s).  Even though the first Games I properly remember was the commerciality-ridden bedbug of an occasion that was Atlanta `96 (staying up till 2:30 to see Linford Christie get disqualified is a memory that particularly sticks), the Olympics has always had a bit of mystique for me.

Therefore, London 2012 excited me more than usual. Although I had only managed to get tickets for four (subsequently 5) football matches, I couldn’t wait for things to get going. And what a show we had. From 26 July and two tremendous matches at Hampden (who knew Honduras v Morocco would be a cracking game of football), to the quirkily British opening ceremony, to the 4-day lull of gold followed by the amazing 12 days of metallic beauty for Team GB (and NI) that followed, these Olympics were just fantastic.

A number of things have struck me in particular about these Olympics. What these Games seem to have done, more than ever, is get people who have little or no interest in sport glued to the TV. Suddenly it was the talk of work, my girlfriend from not liking track and field wasn’t impressed when we missed Jess Ennis’s long jump attempt because of my channel hopping, and quite suddenly the mood of the country generally turned from gloomy discussion of the economy or immigration to animated chats about track cycling and the merits of dressage. It was a wonderful fortnight or so (other than the closing ceremony…). This hasn’t happened before, and certainly didn’t despite the (then) unprecedented success of Team GB 4 years ago in Beijing.

In fact, if Juan Antonio Samaranch was still in charge of the International Olympic Committee, I think he would have said this was “the best Olympics ever.” Yes, he did say that for every Olympics he oversaw (other than the aforementioned Atlanta), but there was something about London, even if I only witnessed the atmosphere (mostly) through the TV. For one, it has shown that Britain can host major sporting events like this quite easily. It seems sad that England won’t get a World Cup till at least 2026 now (after FIFA’s latest “decisions”), and after this year it’s highly unlikely we’ll see another home Olympics/Paralympics in our lifetimes (given the last London games was in 1948, 64 years on gives us London 2076, anyone?) given the fantastic success of the 2012 Games. It also shows that the British people have an unparalleled enthusiasm for sport, and seeing the best people perform on their home stage. Yes, Jess Ennis and Mo Farah were roared from beginning to end in the Olympic Stadium but Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbaeva (until she went in a huff under the duvet) and the US women’s 4×100 relay team were given similar treatment.

This atmosphere of course wasn’t just exclusive to the Olympic Stadium itself. The Aquatics Centre went wild for Adlington, Jamieson and Daley, but also for Phelps, Lochte and Ye Shiwen. The Velodrome crowd… well they were at least decent to Anna Meares. Yes, there was undoubtedly partisanship on display (and so there should be – it’s the number 1 advantage for the sportsmen and women at a home games), but there was also respect and appreciation for brilliant performances and incredible sportsmanship throughout.  Speaking from experience, at the football, the majority British crowds cheered everything; every decent pass, every effort vaguely near the goal, and stood up for every goal and every national anthem, no matter the team involved. In the main, of course, the crowds (mostly) veered towards the underdog when they could. I am in no doubt that it was the same at every Olympic venue.

A week on, people are still talking about them. The One Show (I’ve watched it this week because it’s had Olympic things on it) has kept the enthusiasm up a little bit, and this fantastic story about the Brownlee brothers’ letter and reward from an elderly gentleman. Largely though, what we need is the Paralympics to hurry up. And then Rio in 2016 to do exactly the same.

Premier League Preview 2012-13

Manchester United Old Trafford

I think the title might be on its way back here…

Last year, I did a huge preview for the 2011-12 Premier League season. This year, my time recently has otherwise been taken up by the glory that was the Summer Olympics in London. So, this will be a fairly brief preview, including a quick look at the transfer activity that’s taken place so far.

Firstly, I think the Premier League, come 19 May 2013 at about 5pm, will look like this:

1. Manchester United

2. Manchester City

3. Chelsea

4. Arsenal

5. Tottenham Hotspur

6. Liverpool

7. Newcastle United

8. Everton

9. Sunderland

10. Aston Villa

11. Fulham

12. Stoke City

13. Wigan Athletic

14. Queens Park Rangers

15. Norwich City

16. Reading

17. Swansea City

18. West Bromwich Albion

19. Southampton

20. West Ham United

I get the feeling that Manchester United will be out for some revenge this season and in Kagawa have purchased someone I frankly can’t wait to see. The recent purchase of Robin Van Persie should strengthen that claim; however it will be interesting to see if he and Wayne Rooney can link together well up front. Manchester City may focus, I feel, on the Champions League more than the league (though they do obviously have the squad to deal with both). I would imagine Jack Rodwell, their only big signing so far, will see a lot of time on the bench. Chelsea should kick on from their Champions League win and jump up the league, with some inspired purchases ready to be unleashed on the wider world, particularly Oscar (if he can prove the exception to the rule on South Americans who jump straight into the big time from home and fail). Arsenal should still finish in the top four – Van Persie may not hang around but the wise purchases they’ve made (particularly a cut-price Cazorla) should mean they can spread the goals around and do the necessary in qualifying for Europe’s richest tournament.

Falling just short of the Champions League places, I can see Spurs stagnating a little this season under Andre Villas-Boas. His side’s relative glory may come next season once he is able to put his own stamp on what is still `arry’s squad, though the signings of Sigurdsson and Vertonghen are promising ones. Liverpool will improve on last season (hard not to) under Brendan Rodgers, but not by much. His signings so far (Borini and Allen) are a little underwhelming – one hopes he isn’t falling into that trap of sticking rigidly to what he knows, which can often lead a new manager the wrong way (see Louis Van Gaal at Barca and Craig Levein at Leicester for two notable examples).

Newcastle may fall back a little bit from last season’s wonderful performance, but their squad is still full of class and I expect them again to pick up a few good wins against the bigger clubs. Pardew has made no big signings yet – you can’t help but think they need a new centre-back to provide competition for the three currently in the squad. Everton will just be reliably reliable as usual, starting slowly and picking up, with the acquisitions of Pienaar and Naismith being typical Moyes transfers. I get the feeling Sunderland and a revived Aston Villa will round off the top 10. The Black Cats should take heart from the revival Martin O’Neill sparked last season, particularly if they can get in a decent Premier League striker; Villa have already brought in a zealous young manager in Paul Lambert, and his purchase of Ron Vlaar shows his nous in stepping up a level in the transfer market.

Fulham will be top of the bottom, I think – though they failed to get Pavel Pogrebnyak in permanently, Martin Jol is the archetypal safe pair of hands, and has showed as much in his wise acqusitions of Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega. Stoke will be comfortable without being spectacular (as usual), will wind Arsene Wenger up (as usual), and have brought in a decent Premier League talent (as usual) in Michael Kightly. It’ll also be interesting to see if Jamie Ness can step up from being a fringe-ish player at the previous incarnation of Rangers. I fancy Wigan Athletic to achieve some mid-table mediocrity this time round, particularly given Roberto Martinez has finally discovered his best team (even if it includes Gary Caldwell) and the best way for it to play. Hanging on to Victor Moses may prove tricky though, and Ryo Miyachi’s loan from Arsenal is already being seen as a Moses replacement strategy. Queens Park Rangers should also avoid the relegation stooshie of last year, with Park Ji-Sung a particularly wise deal for Mr Hughes.

Of the promoted sides, I think Reading are best placed to survive. Pogrebnyak is a bit of a transfer coup for the Royals, while Danny Guthrie is a reliable Premier League-level player who should help to boost their squad. Norwich City meanwhile should be ok, with Grant Holt staying and a solid managerial appointment in Chris Hughton. I get the feeling this could be a difficult season for Michael Laudrup and Swansea City, though getting in a chap who scored 15 goals for Rayo Vallecano last season (Michu) strikes me as a rather shrewd move. His goals from midfield (if he can perform to the same level in England) may indeed be vital in keeping the Welsh side in the top flight.

Going down, I fear for West Bromwich Albion with the departure of the ever-reliable Roy Hodgson and the subsequent arrival of a man who’s never had a top job, Steve Clarke. There are already rumblings of discontent in the Baggies’ camp (allegedly) – though it will be great to see Romelu Lukaku (hopefully) get a good run in a Premier League first team. In 19th and 20th, I fear it may be difficult for both Southampton and West Ham United. For Southampton I think this season may have come too soon, though in Nathaniel Clyne they have a very exciting youngster in the side. Meanwhile for the Hammers, I get the feeling that firstly Sam Allardyce will go for his usual style, which will then get the West Ham fans’ backs up. When that happened last season, the potential future tenants of the Olympic Stadium faltered and needed the play-offs to get into the Premier League; I think when the same thing happens this season, they will go the opposite way. Alou Diarra, mind you, is a very wise purchase – they’ll need him.

And there we have it. Another season to look forward to, another 9 months of Sky overhyping matches, of mercenary footballers being paid stupid amounts of money to play a largely pointless game, of controversy mixed with moments of genius. And I can’t wait.

“Newco” Rangers v East Fife, 7 August 2012

After the fulfilling experience of watching football at the Olympics and not being overly bothered who won or lost, it was back to domestic duties. East Fife’s first round draw in the Scottish Communities League Cup had seen us drawn away to the “new” Rangers. It would be my first trip to Ibrox since 1997 (when I was a mere 13 years old), when we lost 3-0 in a Scottish Cup 4th round tie.

The match was of course of huge significance to Rangers fans, it being the first home game since the “Newco” Rangers had been established. A crowd of 30,000 grew to at least 45,000 by the time the delayed kick-off came along, despite the official attendance being announced near the end as a suspiciously low 38,160.

Companies House says otherwise. But clever marketing nonetheless.

No matter the number of fans, it was always going to be a loud, defiant evening, and that it was. The public address system pumped out song after song which the Rangers supporters shouted along to prior to the delayed kick-off. Sandy Jardine then came on to repeat the line on the Copland Road end (see picture above), and finish with a good old-fashioned “We Are the People” (I still don’t understand what this means).

What was clear from the off was that the Gers supporters either side of the rag-tag band of 600 or so East Fife supporters were spoiling for a bit of aggro. I guess with no Celtic to vent at someone has to be vented at, but it was a bit bizarre getting grief for the entirely ironic singing of “what a sh*tey home support.” I’ve never seen so many utterly bemused East Fife supporters. “You’ve got no history” and “we’ve won more cups than you” were similarly (perhaps a bit more understandably) well-received; one thing I’ve never understood about Rangers fans (particularly the die-hards), and probably never will, is the complete lack of irony in the way they support their team. As a fan of a “diddy team”, one thing our supporters do brilliantly (and have done in the 22 years I’ve been a supporter) is gallows humour. One would have expected after all they’ve been through in the summer that Rangers fans might have plenty of irony, and dare I say shame, at their disposal; twas not to be. I don’t think I could ever take football quite that seriously.

They are the people, apparently.

To the game, and after Michael Brown pulled off a fantastic save on 11 minutes from Andy Little’s header, things looked vaguely promising to the point that we might be able to keep Rangers out for a while. This feeling lasted for approximately 4 minutes, when Dean Shiels slipped a ball through for Lee McCulloch to side foot past Brown. After more sustained Rangers pressure, youngster Barrie McKay (who was excellent throughout – a real prospect, if he doesn’t get lazy) knocked one through the Methil defence for Shiels to dink over Brown for a second.

Right on half time, East Fife had probably their best chance of the match. A corner (our only one of the game) was spilled by Neil Alexander. The ball fell to Gareth Wardlaw, who unfortunately skied it, leaning back. 2-1 at half time would have at least been vaguely interesting; as it was, at 2-0 at the break we were rather clinging to the merest thread of hope.

Bit of Ibrox action.

That merest thread was snapped 2 minutes after the restart. A great driving run from McKay, cutting in from the right, led to a lay off to Shiels on the edge of the Fifers’ area. His shot pulled yet another decent save out of Michael Brown, but the rebound fell very kindly to Lee Wallace who made no mistake. 3-0 to Rangers. 15 minutes later it was 4, as McKay provided another assist, this time for Lee McCulloch, who again side-footed past Brown.

After that it turned into a bit of a training match for Rangers, combined with a sing-song (“You’re Only Here To See the Rangers” predictably arriving around the 70 minute mark). A Robert Sloan free kick was well saved by Neil Alexander, and there was the odd vaguely exciting foray forward from the men in Black and Gold, though it wasn’t to be. When our lot sang “Gordon Durie’s Barmy Army” for a full 15 minutes up to the final whistle, it was the Rangers fans’ turn to look bemused; presumably the notion of still cheering your team on when they’re 4 down is an alien one to the chaps and chapesses in red, white and blue.

Some people from Methil.

Full time came with a victory for Rangers on their re-birth, and something of a return to normality for their supporters, no doubt. To my mind, the Fifers were not embarrassed; certainly there was no player who made continuous glaring errors or looked massively out of their depth. Michael Brown was, as ever, a stellar custodian between the posts, while Darren Smith continues to look like the class act in the midfield for us.

On the way out, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a few friendly Rangers fans, one of whom shook my hand and thanked me for coming. From a look at our forum over the last day or so it would seem the Rangers supporters were, by and large, happy to see us all there, which I guess is decent of them. I still for the life of me don’t understand what “We Are the People” means, though. This result was no doubt the start of Rangers’ long but inevitable climb back into the Scottish Premier League; one wonders, however, how many of their fans will turn up on a wet December evening against Elgin City when that time comes.

Rangers 4-0 East Fife (McCulloch x2, Shiels, Wallace)

Brazil v Honduras – Olympic Football, St James’ Park, 4 August 2012

Quarter-final time had arrived. Having followed their unlikely run through Group D to the quarter-finals, I was in Newcastle again to watch the gritty, tenacious Honduras side take on the footballing behemoths of Brazil.

This time I was going solo, which was an interesting experience but one which, in retrospect, I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a wonderful atmosphere around St James’ Park pre-match, with Hondurans, Brazilians and Brits mingling in the pubs and streets around the ground. I had a brief chat with a Honduran gentleman (see below!) who wasn’t overly confident regarding his team’s chances in their first ever quarter final in a major tournament.

A Honduran supporter, pre-match.

My cheap seat at St James’ Park had this time afforded me a seat in the gods, in the North West Corner between the Milburn Stand and the Sir John Hall Stand. It provided a great view both of the pitch and of Newcastle (I could just about see the Gateshead Millennium Bridge from my pew). There were a lot of Brazilians in the stadium (including a couple sitting next to me), with the odd Honduran here and there – they certainly had a more notable presence for this game than they had had in the group games.

Pre-match, I got some good chat with the Brazilian chap sitting next to me, particularly regarding the merits of Rogerio Ceni and the pronunciation of Robinho in Brazilian Portuguese (I’d like to thank Tim Vickery for this knowledge). He was also talking football with a dad and his kids (all Notts Forest fans) who’d come north for the day. This only endeared me to the Olympic experience all the more.

View of the stadium from my seat, including young chap with Neymar mohawk (who sadly took it off after about 5 minutes).

The match kicked off to several rather annoying toots on various vuvuzelas. These were mercifully drowned out a few minutes later, however, when the band arrived. A number of Brazilian supporters climbed the stairs with drums and banners in hand, and proceeded to create an absolutely fantastic atmosphere for the remainder of the match.

The band arrives…

17:00 – Brazil v Honduras

And so, to the football. Brazil opened with a gilt-bordered opportunity for Leandro Damiao after less than a minute. His shot, however, was spooned wide somewhat and the selecao’s chance to make an instant impact disappeared. It struck me soon after that although the match had been advertised as being sold out (the office where I collected my ticket was plastered in signs saying as much), there was a smattering of empty seats in various pockets throughout the ground. No doubt the “Olympic family” had once again let the side down, and shut ordinary people out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a Brazil side in the flesh.

Back to the field of play. On 7 minutes Mario Martinez, Honduras’s number 7, re-introduced his tendency to go down rather too easily to the St James’ crowd. The Geordie faithful responded as they did in the Spain match, with a chorus of boos. 4 minutes later (not long after the arrival of the dreaded Mexican wave), however, he elicited cheers in the Newcastle attendees with the opening goal. A run down the left came from the effervescent Roger Espinoza (New England Revolution have a quality player there), and he worked himself into a position to cross to the edge of the penalty area with his right foot. The cross bounced off Maynor Figueroa, and that bounce fell perfectly into the path of Martinez who smashed a wonderfully improvised volley into the back of the net. 1-0 to the very much unfancied Central Americans.

My Brazilian chum was clearly not a fan of Brazil’s right winger, Hulk, preferring his own team (Sao Paulo)’s man, Lucas Moura. Hulk, like his team-mates, was finding it fairly difficult to get into the game, with the determination and pressing of the Hondurans at that point stopping Brazil from getting into the game. Only Oscar seemed able to have any influence – even Neymar, other than the odd moment of genius, was relatively quiet.

The referee then gave Brazil rather a large dose of help in the 33rd minute. A minute after his first yellow, Honduran defender Wilmer Crisanto went in on Neymar, going for the ball but not taking it. It was in my view not a yellow, but unfortunately my view counted for absolutely nothing with the German referee showing the right-back a second yellow and thus a red. Honduras would have to play the remaining hour of the match, against the gold-medal favourites, with ten men. Although he had not gone down easily for this particular challenge, Neymar did throw himself around with some aplomb; I was pleasantly surprised when my Brazilian cohort brought up the fact that Neymar’s fellow countrymen appreciate his amateur dramatics as much as the rest of the world.

Crisanto takes his leave after 33 minutes.

5 minutes later, Brazil equalised. Some decent work down the right from Hulk led Mendoza to somewhat rashly race from his goal (presumably the Honduran manager had been mashing the Y button). Hulk’s cross wasn’t properly cleared by Velasquez, and Leandro Damiao was on hand to slide tackle the ball into the net. 1-1, and surely Brazil would run away with it from there.

Except they didn’t, though Brazil did have two further chances before the break. Firstly, Marcelo cut in nicely from the left and nipped Mendoza’s palms with the resulting shot. Mendoza then had to tip Oscar’s dangerous cross-cum-shot over the crossbar in first half stoppage time.

Half time arrived with the score 1-1. I had the feeling that if Honduras had kept their lead until half-time, their ten men could have frustrated their illustrious opponents in the second half as they did so well with the Spanish. What was certain that they still had a foothold in the game, despite the best efforts of the Brazilians and the referee. Oscar had by far been Brazil’s best outlet; my Brazilian friend and I agreed that Neymar had, if anything, been trying too hard to do things for his side.

The second half started on a rather surprising note. Espinoza (who was excellent) picked the ball up on the Brazilian left, cut inside and hit a precise shot low, through Romulo’s legs and into the bottom right corner of Gabriel’s net. The ten men had the lead. 2-1 to Honduras, but could they keep it?

Unfortunately, the answer was a fairly massive no. 2 minutes after his side had retaken their lead, Velasquez took down Leandro Damiao after a careless pass into his own penalty area from Figueroa. Neymar stepped up and smashed the penalty home, even though Mendoza went the right way (if only he was taller). 2-2, then – it was rather special to see a goal from the probable next global superstar in football at my end of the ground (even if it was just a penalty).

Neymar steps up for his penalty, a mere 2 minutes after Honduras had re-taken the lead.

On 60 minutes, the game was as good as over as Brazil scored a third to take the lead for the first time. Oscar fed Neymar who turned into space on the edge of the Honduran area. His pass found Damiao near the penalty spot, who in one movement turned and expertly slotted past the largely prone Mendoza. 3-2, and there was no doubt that the third was the best of the Brazilians’ goals, with a lovely touch of class from Neymar and Damiao.

The noise behind me increased somewhat after that third goal went in (the fourth match in a row in which Brazil had scored three or more), and from then on the rear of the North West Corner of St James’ Park took on the feel of a very small Brazilian carnival. Drums were banging, banners were being unfurled, tooty horns were being tooted and the Brazilian supporters were generally enjoying themselves. Presumably, however, the Rio carnival doesn’t have too many humourless Geordie security guards who stand menacingly nearby for no good reason when natives of that city are enjoying themselves (perhaps they can start an exchange scheme).

On 65 minutes, the Rio-esque atmosphere was almost abruptly halted. A Honduras corner was completely missed by the unconvincing Gabriel, and that man Espinoza was only stopped from equalising for his country by a collection of Brazilian limbs. The resulting corner didn’t clear the first man and Brazil could breathe easily again.

On 67 minutes, potential future Manchester United winger Lucas Moura arrived to replace Hulk (much to the delight of my Sao Paulo-supporting chum). His arrival was swiftly followed (entirely coincidentally) by a number of thumping free kicks from Maynor Figueroa, which were either handled relatively comfortably by Gabriel or were well blocked by his back 4. A queue was now developing on the stair for photos of the Brazilian supporters.

The Brazilian support. This doesn’t happen too often in Methil.

While the supporter photocalls continued, some football was still being played. A decent chance for Mejia presented itself on 83 minutes, with his shot being hit straight at Gabriel. At this point the traffic-beaters started to depart, selecting an easy time at the 55 Degrees North Roundabout over another 10 or so minutes of near-world-class football. Good call.

On 87 minutes, Jerry Bengtson was substituted. Although those sitting next to me were in a bit of a carnival mood at this point, I still felt the need to applaud the man who’d been an absolute hero for his country in the group stages, and had a fantastic name to boot.

The referee (Felix Brych, Germany) had been handing out yellow cards like he perhaps thought they were his business card throughout the game. This profligacy led to the somewhat undeserved red card given to Roger Espinoza in the dying embers of the match. Although it was a bookable offence, given it was clear his side were done for it was hardly worth the referee’s while. As it was though, his slightly premature departure did give the St James crowd the opportunity to give the wily Honduran an extremely well-deserved standing ovation, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen for a red card recipient.

Full-time came, with Brazil just edging it, both in scoreline and general performance. The Hondurans had performed gallantly and they had no doubt made their nation proud. For the neutral (i.e. me, though I do consider myself now to be at least one-sixteenth Honduran), it had been a wonderfully drama-ridden match with no little quality on display. Oscar, Damiao and Neymar had all been class for Brazil; Espinoza was undoubtedly the stand-out for Honduras.

Full-time, and Honduras exit the Olympic football tournament having given Brazil a fright.

From a personal perspective, the experience had been incredible; sitting in with some loud, boisterous Brazilian supporters who didn’t stop for most of the 90 minutes was an absolute privilege – talk about creating an atmosphere. I shook my Brazilian friend’s hand on departing the ground, and couldn’t help but think what a brilliant time I’d had watching Olympic football over the last week or so. It had been played in a wonderful spirit throughout the 5 games I’d seen (perhaps other than Spain’s histrionics), and I felt that the knowledgable British crowd and the wholesome Olympic atmosphere had made the occasions all the more special. I get the feeling this will be a day I don’t easily forget.

Well, quite.

Brazil 3-2 Honduras (Damiao x 2, Neymar (pen); Martinez, Espinoza)

The Final Set of Group D Matches

Very, very quick post on this to round up Group D of the Olympic football tournament. Having enjoyed the first 4 games of the group in person, work got in the way of of seeing the final two matches between Spain and Morocco, and Japan and Honduras.

As it turned out, we didn’t miss much at all. Both matches finished 0-0, with Spain suffering the ignominy (as France did in the 2002 World Cup) of going out of the Olympics without scoring a single goal. Japan go through as group winners to play Egypt at Old Trafford on Saturday, while Brazil will entertain Honduras in Newcastle later in the afternoon. I think a return trip to St James’ may be in order…