Plenty of fun to be had from Olympic football
Spain's Juan Mata challenges Japan's Hotaru Yamaguchi. AFP Photos.
One of the joys of the Olympics is to watch athletes from different cultural backgrounds go head to head in competition, and the football program has certainly come to the party in that regard.
The men’s quarter-final draw is a veritable smorgasboard of cross-cultural delights, highlighted by host Great Britain’s Millennium Stadium showdown with Korea Republic.
Team GB has scratched around to reach the knock-out stage, needing a scrappy Daniel Sturridge goal to see off Uruguay in its final group-stage game.
But their presence has energised the football competition and far from Welsh fans turning their backs on the predominantly English line-up, they’ve instead turned out in impressive numbers to watch a Great Britain side for whom several Welshmen – most notably old timers Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy – have turned in some key performances.
Millennium Stadium should be rocking for the visit of the South Koreans, who despite only managing to eke their way through to the final eight, aren’t exactly pushovers themselves.
Ki Sung-Yueng, Ji Dong-Won, Park Chu-Yong and Cardiff City newcomer Kim Bo-Kyung should all be familiar to the locals given that they play for British clubs, and while goal scoring has proved problematic at this tournament, both Park and Kim are more than capable of adding to the goals they scored against Switzerland in the group stage.
Just as intriguing is the clash between Brazil and Central American side Honduras.
The star-studded Brazilians were pre-tournament favourites to win the tournament and so far they’ve lived up to the hype, winning all three of their group games and turning on the style in the process.
Full-back Marcelo’s impudent turn to bamboozle the New Zealand defence in Brazil’s 3-0 canter over the Kiwis was a delightful piece of skill, but Brazil won’t have it all their own way against Honduras in the quarters, particularly with overage player Jerry Bengtson in red-hot goal scoring form.
Mexico will surely fancy their chances of knocking out underdogs Senegal – who only qualified for the tournament via a play-off win over Oman – although the Africans have already surprised by finishing ahead of Uruguay in their group.
And arguably the biggest surprise – though not particularly shocking for those who follow either Asian or underage football – saw Japan beat Spain in its opening game and ultimately finish top of the group.
What was most ‘stunning’ for me about Japan’s 1-0 win over Spain was that even after so many outstanding performances from Asian sides at recent international tournaments, the world’s Eurocentric media was still incredulous that such a result could even occur.
Prior to the tournament kicking off, I didn’t so much think Japan was capable of beating Spain as I did think they were capable of winning a gold medal, such is the quality and balance of Takashi Sekizuka’s squad.
Not surprisingly, defending women’s World Cup holders Japan have reached the knock-out stage as well.
They will meet fellow powerhouse Brazil in the quarter-final of a competition which, unlike the men’s tournament, has no age restriction.
France and Sweden will meet in an all-European showdown, while the United States will be expected to make short work of plucky New Zealand in their clash at St James’ Park.
But just like the men’s competition, Great Britain’s clash with Canada will invariably inspire the most interest, not least because Team GB downed Brazil 1-0 in front of more than 70,000 fans at Wembley in its final group-stage game.
Say what you will about the merits of Olympic football but every four years it inspires plenty of interests from fans, despite being quadrennially written off as an irrelevance.
And despite the naysayers who insist that missing out on qualification is no big deal, the lack of Australian interest is a shame, because now we’re reduced to sitting here talking about other nations having all the fun.
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman
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