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)

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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…

Olympic Football, St James’ Park, 29 July 2012

And so, the Group D odyssey continued for me and my younger brother Martyn, with a trip to Newcastle and the mightily impressive (though somewhat lopsided) St James’ Park. Again the cheap seats had afforded us a nonetheless tremendous view; like at Hampden, in line with the edge of a penalty area at one end of the field. St James’ seats are somewhat closer to the field, which must make the atmosphere of a Tyne/Wear derby rather impressive.

On this Sunday evening though, it was the more wholesome, happy Olympic atmosphere which pervaded the arena. Having seen two cracking games in Glasgow, we were both looking forward to seeing all four Group D sides in action once more. Up first this time was Japan v Morocco, followed by Spain v Honduras.

The Japanese chaps high-five one another before kick-off.

Japan v Morocco, 17:00

And so to the football. Once again (much in keeping with the Olympic spirit), both sides’ anthems were wonderfully observed by the 26,000 or so (i.e. half-full) in the stadium. We were on the look out for our man Kensuke Nagai, a player who had set a high watermark for hard work as far as we were concerned in the first march against Spain.

That man Noureddine Amrabat was the first to make an impression this match, bustling his way through the middle of the Japanese defence before being stopped in his tracks by Japanese captain Maya Yoshida. Things continued much in that vein for the first 20 minutes or so of the match, with Amrabat once again providing class for the Moroccans, along with his elusive team-mate in the middle, Zakaria Labyad.

At this point the egregious Mexican waving began, though I did feel slightly more enamoured to it this time round. The fans in the far corner seemed to be controlling things, with their boos (if the wave didn’t make it round) and cheers (if it did) probably confusing the 22 gentlemen on the field no end.

The second half of the first half belonged to the chaps from the Far East. First, a brilliant chase and control from Kiyotake found the Japanese creative outlet, Otsu, in the middle. His shot was turned turned wide by Moroccan keeper Amsik for a corner. Amsik was then at the centre of some minor controversy a few minutes later.  A strong header from a Ogihara corner was directed pretty much straight at the Moroccan keeper. He saved, then appeared (from where I was sitting anyway) to carry the ball over the line. Thanks to the gift of Sky Plus and BBC Olympics 12 HD, I can however confirm that the referee was bang on in not awarding the goal. Half-time was upon us swiftly thereafter.

Japan came into the game rather more in the second half. After both sides scoped one another out for the first 15 minutes or so of the second period,  Japan’s best opportunity of the match up to that point came in 63 minutes. Nagai drove at the heart of the Moroccan defence, the ball found its way to Kiyotake whose shot hit the underside, hit Amsik, and then spun gratefully into the be-beiged Moroccan keeper’s arms. A lovely run through the middle from Otsu soon thereafter was well matched by Amsik, then some excellent work through the middle from Yamaguchi unfortunately resulted in him directing the ball aerially towards Sunderland.

Some second half action from Morocco v Japan.

Japan were on top now, but they were, as they did against Spain, spurning some cracking opportunities. The opening goal finally arrived in the 84th minute of proceedings. A relatively speculative ball over the top from Hiyotake found Nagai sprinting through the channel. Amsik committed himself too early; Nagai dinked it beautifully over him and into the far corner.

Morocco had the last chance of the match deep into stoppage time. Just as I had been praising Yoshida’s performance, he got sloppy and allowed Labyad to wander through and force a save from Gonda. Yoshida made up for his error, however, with a great block from El Kaddouri, who had the goal at his mercy.

And so Japan had pulled another good win out of the bag with a resilient performance. Yoshida (despite his last minute error) had been excellent at the back, with Otsu linking the play and advancing beyond the front line beautifully. It was also fantastic to see our man Kensuke Nagai finally get himself on the scoresheet. I may sound like a corrupted MP3 but I can’t help but again praise Amrabat from the Moroccan side of things – why they took him off with 20 minutes left I’ll never know as he caused Japan far more problems than any Spaniard managed on Thursday. I genuinely think the Moroccan striker could do a job for a lower-end Premier League team.

This is why football, and indeed sport, is a wonderful thing – one team delighted, the other devastated.

St James’ didn’t quite live up to Hampden’s inter-match “entertainment” – there were no giant beachballs anyway. After some shoddy pre-match videos and two plays of Muse’s Olympic theme with obligatory inspirational video, it was time for match 2.

Spain v Honduras, 1945

Again, after the anthems, the Honduran players gave the crowd a good round of applause. From that moment on we were right behind them. Which we would have been anyway, because being East Fife supporters, Martyn and I are well used to it. Spain, predictably, dominated the first 5 minutes or so, and things were looking rather ominous for our new Central American brethren. There were rather more Hondurans in Newcastle than there were in Glasgow (perhaps there’s an enclave in Jesmond), and they were given something to shout about after 7 minutes.

Completely against the run of play, Honduras composed a nice move down the left. Roger Espinoza picked up the ball on the left edge of the area, exchanged passes with Mario Martinez, before a sweet left foot cross to the near post. Jerry Bengtson outjumped Jordi Alba and powered his header past De Gea (headed down!), becoming the joint-top scorer of the tournament as a result.

A near-side tussle in the first half.

Spain seemed rather shellshocked for much of the rest of the first half. On 29 minutes, Mata fired one across Mendoza when perhaps Muniain (playing in this one, and what a difference he made) was in a better position. Isco then volleyed not far off target after a sustained spell of Spain pressure. Right on half-time, Mata had his and Spain’s best chance of the half, shooting agonisingly wide of Mendoza’s right hand post.

Half-time arrived, then, with Honduras in the lead. There was a heated atmosphere developing between the players, not helped by Martinez writhing around “injured” on the halfway line, then opportunistically getting up when Honduras were on the counter. As it was, the Central Americans probably deserved to be in front, for their work rate and tenacity if nothing else.

The second half was about as much of a deluge as anyone is likely to see in football without a goal being scored. Spain were largely relentless from first to last. However, on 51 minutes, the first real chance of the half went to Honduras. Good work down the right led to a cross to the tireless Espinoza. His header rebounded off the upright, agonisingly just out of reach of the onrushing Bengtson. It would have been interesting to see how Spain would have reacted to going 2 behind

As it was, they stayed one down, and then proceeded to throw everything at the Honduras defence and their 5″7 keeper Mendoza (he’s taller than his deputy in the Olympic squad too). Firstly, a wonderful surging run from Muniain ended with his shot drifting just wide of Mendoza’s left hand upright. A similarly excellent driving run through the middle  a couple of minutes later resulted in his shot hitting that very post. On 72 minutes Rodrigo (who came on as a sub in this game, having been deservedly dropped after his showing against Japan) forced a wonderful save from Mendoza, tipping the Benfica striker’s header round his right post. Things were getting relentless now but the Hondurans were just about holding firm.

On 79 minutes, Rodrigo was again set free, but a combination of brave goalkeeping and just-about-sturdy-enough defending kept him out. In the process, Mendoza injured himself. Now, how injured he was, given Martinez’s reaction to his “injury” in the first 45 – I’m guessing it wasn’t too serious. What it didn’t justify, however, is Iker Muniain’s behaviour, attempting to barge into the Honduran keeper to get him off the ground. The resultant yellow card was one of the more deserving of the 13 given out by the Venezuelan referee on the night.

The referee’s performance was called further into question when the game reached its last minute. Another good run through the middle from Rodrigo saw him appear to be tackled from behind by Velasquez. On seeing the TV footage, there is no doubt he got absolutely nothing of the ball and a lot of Rodrigo’s ankles. As it was, the Venezuelan referee turned the claim down (one of three the Spanish had in the last 15 minutes) and Juan Mata was booked soon after for getting in his face (he seems like such a nice chap on Twitter too).

By this time chants of “HON-DU-RAS!” were floating round the stadium, and so it was that Honduras had the last decent chance of the match. A good surging counter attack found the ball at the feet of the controversial Martinez. His shot was very weak, but was spilled out for a corner by De Gea (and wasn’t too far from going in). The volume climbed all the more. A last-gasp set piece for Spain saw De Gea move forward to no avail.

The final whistle blew and the crowd stood to a man to salute their Central American heroes (other than the people who left early, presumably because there were tailbacks on the A167(M)). The Spanish players did not seem to share this sentiment, however, and instead decided to harangue the referee, with Muniain in particular (again) being pointlessly niggly and, frankly, a bit of a bully.

The Spanish show that, as well as being good winners, they can also be very bad losers.

The Hondurans, meanwhile, were naturally delighted, to the point where a few of their players, including Mendoza who had been excellent, climbed into the crowd to acknowledge the effort of their countrymen to come to Newcastle to support their team.

The one final gesture was a lovely one. In the warm-up, it was clear that an older lady had been hit by a wayward shot from a Honduran and had been hurt badly enough to need some first aid from the stewards. At the end of the match, the culprit became clear, as Roger Espinoza made his way to that end of the ground, apologised to the lady in question and handed her his shirt from the match. A frankly outstanding gesture, and one very much in keeping with the friendly Olympic atmosphere in the ground. An0ther quality day’s entertainment from Group D of the 2012 Olympics – the Japanese might well be worth keeping an eye on in the later stages.

Scores and scorers on the day:

Morocco 0-1 Japan (Nagai)

Spain 0-1 Honduras (Bengtson)

Olympic Football, Hampden Park, 26 July 2012

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.

The Moroccans and Hondurans line up for their national anthems in front of a not entirely full Hampden.

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.

Jerry Bengtson, about to (briefly) give Honduras the lead at Hampden.

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.

The Japanese corner of Hampden. They didn’t stop for the entire match either.

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.

The Japanese players acknowledge the crowd post-match. Nice touch.

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)