A glorious tournament

Overall, it was a fascinating Olympic football tournament; above all perhaps that football remains a tantalisingly unpredictable game, writes Brian Glanville.

The Olympic soccer tournament, largely derided and marginalised in the English media, well before a ball had been kicked, illustrated the unquenchable popularity of the game and emphasised by implication how gloriously unpredictable it remains. It was the hugely successful American script writer William Goldman who once opined, “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.” Much the same could be said about football as the Olympics showed.

Take, as a baffling example, the demise of the Uruguayan team which, with the brilliant young Brazilians, (shocked by nine-man Honduras) could surely have been seen as one of the favourites to win the competition. Did they not have two attackers of undoubtedly world class stature in Luis Suarez and Napoli’s Edison Cavani? How, you might have wondered beforehand, could the job lot of players, thrown together almost at the last moment by Britain, compete with them? And what could Senegal hope to achieve against such splendour?

In the event, massive anticlimax ensued. Uruguay began with a very narrow victory against the unfancied but resilient United Arab Emirates, a mere 2-1. Next came Senegal, a bruisingly competitive side which had somewhat but uneasily been held to a draw by Britain. Though had an inept and over indulgent Uzbek referee given Britain the penalty they merited when Craig Bellamy was chopped down, it’s arguable that Britain would have won.

When Senegal played Uruguay, however, logic and form seemed to have been turned on their head? If one had been told before the game, barely reported in the English sporting press, that Senegal, reduced for more than half the game to 10 men would not only keep their goal inviolate but score twice themselves, who would have put money on it?

Then, a last ditch affair, the Uruguayans faced Britain in Cardiff. And they lost! Lost to a British team, which had begun shakily in a pre-tournament friendly with the Brazilians 2-0. Lost without potentially their finest player, Garath Bale of Spurs. Indeed, you could ask yourself just how far GB could have gone in the tournament had he only been available. Would they have beaten South Korea?

And thereby, of course, hangs a tale. Shortly before the GB manager Stuart Pearce was due to announce his squad, Bale succumbed to a back injury and was medically advised not to play in the Olympics which was, beyond all reasonable doubt, something he longed to do, indeed the only chance this electric left winger would ever get. Reluctantly, therefore, he dropped out, whereupon, against medical expectation, the injury was healed which enabled him to go on Tottenham’s tour of the USA; a meagre consolation prize indeed. Less so than ever, when he was brutally fouled by the player who had done so before, Liverpool’s Charlie Adams.

In the meantime, as you might say, poor Bale had been well and truly “Blattered.” Recklessly and unfairly criticised by the ineffable Sepp Blatter, still the President of FIFA whatever revelations about past controversies — such as the huge bribery of his predecessor Joao Havelange by the now defunct ISL group — have come so notoriously to light. With Blatter himself — obliged by the Swiss authorities to disclose the details — implicitly revealing that he knew about it all along.

Bale, erupted Blatter, could face a ban from the game. At which Tottenham responded furiously, insisting Bale wasn’t chosen for the GB squad “on the basis of this injury and the inability to predict recovery time…. This decision was not taken lightly, and made only after consultation with Team GB’s medical team.” A team which utterly refuted the mistaken belief that the soccer tournament would attract meagre support. Which always seemed bizarre to me, knowing that for many Olympiads, soccer had attracted more fans and made more money even than athletics, which have always been seen to be the centrepiece of the Games. And so it proved again, with over 80,000 fans watching GB at Wembley, 70,000 in Cardiff. Indeed, a GB women’s match pulled in a colossal 70,000 at Wembley.

And the GB Team under Stuart Pearce, who had boldly and wisely ignored the siren voices which demanded the selection of the fading, over publicised David Beckham, surpassed itself eliminated by South Korea only on penalties. Welsh veterans Craig Bellamy, irrepressible on the right wing, and Ryan Giggs, shrewd in the midfield centre (even if the Welsh players somewhat sullenly refused to sing the National anthem, almost as if they were the dissident Scots, none of whom played) surpassed themselves.

The team discovered a glorious new goalkeeper in the 19-year-old Jack Butland, yet to play a single game for his club, Birmingham City, three times defying powerful shots by Uruguay’s Suarez — while such youngsters as the midfielders Joe Allen of Wales, English Tom Cleverley of Manchester United, Wales skipper Aaron Ramsey, proceeded to surpass themselves. And a single goal by Daniel Sturridge, rapidly recovering from illness, brought victory over Uruguay, long ago kings of the Olympics with those marvellous teams which won the title in 1924 and 1928, the World Cup two years later.

Spain? World Cup and European winners? They could neither win nor even score and went out immediately in the group stage. Overall, it was a fascinating tournament; above all perhaps that football remains a tantalisingly unpredictable game. The first British team to compete in the finals since one saw a gallant all amateur side hold the full Italy under-21 team to a 2-2 draw in Rome proved worthy successors in a tournament where professionalism is now open. From the 1920s onwards, shamateurism reigned supreme.