Thursday, August 9, 2012

US go for gold in London

Olympics Womens Football Final: 
USA v Japan
Wembley Stadium, London 2.45pm EST

D-Day for a USA ripe for revenge for the 2011 World Cup Final and a chance to retain their Olympic title.

Thursday's final should be a cracker. Here's hoping anyway.

Living south of the River Thames, I always find it a drag  going to Wembley, a forlorn outer suburb of London sprawl with nothing to recommend it bar a good soccer match now and again.

The venerable yet decrepit stadium, home to the 1948 Olympics and '66 World Cup Final and the worst sightlines in England, came crashing down in 2003 to be replaced by the comfortable if bland Norman Foster-designed 90,000 seat fortress you see today. It rises like an alien mothership once you leave the Tube station, but once up close, despite the pretty arch, it lacks the grand entrance the old Twin Towers majestically provided. Awesome yet anodyne.

But back to the footy. I have enjoyed the women's tournament much more as usual than the men's with its curious eligibility rules, although Brazil have been handing out tantalising clues to their 2014 World Cup hosting and Neymar has been having an Albert Hall (ball in Cockney rhyming slang and the name of the official sphere of the tournament).

 The once in a lifetime appearance of a soccer squad called Great Britain (14 Englishmen and four Welshmen) has mercifully been a passing apparition, as a gold medal would have led to a call for a British team in Rio in 2018, which would have posed a threat to the four UK nations' FIFA status and their priviliged  seats on the International Board because qualifying is based on UEFA U21 criteria.

Stuart Pearce continued where he left off with England's U21 side by forging an organised but uninspired Team GB who went out the tournament on penalties to South Korea, having missed one in normal time.

GB women (17 English and two Scots) attracted a record crowd in Britain for women's football of 70,584 in their defeat of Brazil last week, but fell foul of fast-improving Canada in the quarters, exiting stage left in Coventry after three straight wins.

There should be at least as many in London for the final, by some distance the largest crowd the USWNT have seen at the Olympics. Almost 30,000 saw them beat North Korea at Old Trafford but only 11,000 watched them beat Colombia in Glasgow, hardly a 'Hampden Roar', and a paltry 10,000 were in Newcastle for the clash with New Zealand.

But the figures bode well for women's soccer, which has been a late starter in England. 61,482 watched Japan edge France 2-1 in their semi-final for instance, when the domestic league's top attendance last season was only 5,000.

The men's tournament has drawn much better, selling out games in Cardiff, London and Manchester and pulling 75,000+ for Senegal v Uruguay and South Korea v Gabon, yet the feeling remains that the tradition of placing Olympic soccer games around the country needs reconsidering. London is not surrounded by stadia as England's football heartlands lie in the industrial midlands and north, but the capital itself boasts a dozen professional club grounds which could have made for more of an Olympic atmosphere than the 8,732 in Glasgow for Egypt v Belarus.

The two finals, Japan v the USA and Brazil v Mexico should be grand finales, but despite England, or specifically the Freemasons Arms pub in Covent Garden, London being the birthplace of the global game, soccer has not set the games alight at London 2012.

China has continued its march towards global domination, Usain Bolt has been Superman again, heptathlete Jessica Ennis has played her role as the host nation's golden girl to perfection and Britain's funding of cycling has yielded the expected treasure-chest of medals on two wheels to keep the locals happy. The 24-channel Olympic BBC TV coverage has got everyone on board and the atmosphere has been at times joyous.

Today's clash of styles should be as intriguing as the Womens World Cup Final last year was. Japan's keep-ball tactics outfoxed France twice at Wembley in the semi-final, but they were lucky to survive a second-half fightback and will be vulnerable to the American power plays. Here's hoping for a night to remember.

-Sean O'Conor, London

1 comment:

Greg Seltzer said...

Enjoy the game, brother!