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