After the edge-of-your-seat excitement of the Blue Brazil yesterday in Scotland it was time for the second part of our Boys from Brazil weekend bonanza. A late night flight to Gatwick, followed by a crack-of-dawn flight back up the country to Manchester (I have planted a tree in my garden to make up for such air mile fuelled extravagance) was the plan of action.
The main event was obviously Brazil v Belarus at 2.45pm, the odds on favourites to take the Mens Gold Medal after the elimination of the Spanish (still not too late to put your money on them at www.freebets.org.uk) but before that we had a packed agenda. A trip to the National Football Museum at Urbis in the city centre was the first port of call, taking in the new permenant home of the history of our beautiful game. You could spend hours wandering around the (free) museum with its interactive displays, brilliant pictures and all sorts of momentos from around the world. Photos, did I mention photos? Well now you come to ask, yes I had a personal interest in them because a couple (well, OK 5) had been included in a section called “Fields of Dreams”. Those little snippets of life at Crawley Down (now with a Gatwick at the end), Hucknall Town, Ilkston, Beckenham Town and Chipstead all bring back memories for me and will hopefully evoke a tear or two in other peoples eyes. Alas, I am no Stuart Roy Clarke, the Daddy of football photography, and it is only good and proper that the exhibition features a collection of his work, but I can say to a small extent I have made it as a football photographer.
After the issues getting into Hampden Park on Thursday, today’s transportation arrangements couldn’t have been better. Well, almost. As I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, numerous signs, and the information sheets sheets supplied to the Olympic helpers said Brazil v Belarus was the first game, kicking off at 12pm (which may explain how the stadium looked so full by 1pm when I arrived!). Shuttle buses again were laid on, leaving every 5 minutes for the 10 minute trip down to the drop off point, opposite Legends Fish & Chip Bar (disappointingly renamed from the Lou Macari Chippy). Then on the walk down to the ground, plenty of stewards were on hand giving out the clear bags and urging people to stash their swag long before they reached the turnstiles. The result? No queues, no fuss and plenty of happy football fans already in their seats watching the first game.
Of course most people were here to see the Brazilians, but there were a fair few Kiwis and Egyptian fans around to see which of these sides could still make it through to the quarter finals. Egypt had been battered by Brazil in 45 minutes of samba style football on Thursday, only to put in an excellent second period and pull it back to 3-2. New Zealand, on the other hand, had to win after the defeat in their first game to Belarus. This, on face value, was one of those goats cheese and aubergine bakes you see on starter menus before you can move onto fillet steak. Would it taste bland and rubbery? Or would they find a some full of flavour parmesan and sun dried tomato instead (it’s been a long day so far and the stomach is rumbling).
Egypt 1 New Zealand 1 – Old Trafford – Sunday 29th July 2012
I arrived at my seat in the press box via a strange route that seemed to take in my own private tour of the Theatre of Dreams (including interrupting a press conference) just as Mohamed Salah equalised Chris Wood’s earlier strike for the All Whites. As seats go, you cannot get much better in English football that at Old Trafford with a decent view of the lower two tiers of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand (the third, laying empty for the games today, hidden under the vast sloping roof).
Like the Honduras v Morocco game on Thursday, people arrived expecting two minnows trying to string a pass together, and like Thursday, what they saw was a great attacking game of football. British interest was in the form of referee Mark Clattenburg, although the crowd’s interest was mainly on the dancing semi-clad Brazilian girls in the front of the Stretford End. With temperatures bearly breaking 12 degrees (this is July for Sir Trev’s sake!), the word “fripples” sprang to mind. I laughed until I realised that tomorrow morning I was supposed to be covering the Beach Volleyball and we certainly do not want any freezing temperatures there that would require tracksuits to be worn. Nobody wants to see that (and I am talking about male and female versions before I am accused of being sexist…again).
Both teams wanted to attack, and moved the ball forward quickly, finding gaps in each other’s defensive lines with ease. Egypt should have been long out of sight by the hour mark. Time and time again the ball flashed across the goal mouth but rarely did they hit the target. The impressive part of the Egyptian performance was not the attacking flair they showed throughout the second half, but the fact that all bar one of the squad are home grown and still play their football in Egypt. Only Mohamed Salah, wanting a life filled with chocolate, mountains and not a camel in sight, plays outside Egypt, plying his trade in Switzerland. New Zealand, on the other hand could boast (or “unboast”) only six of their squad who play in their national league, with four playing in England (Ryan Nelson, Tim Payne, Chris Wood and Cameron Howieson) as well as their coach being former Tonbridge Angel and Wolverhampton Wanderer, Neil Emblen.
With the game deep into injury time, Egypt attacked again. The ball found its way to the scorer Salah Mohamed who jinked passed one defender, sold the keeper a dummy and with the goal open before him, blazed the ball over the bar. There was still time for both teams to have another go before Clattenburg blew time and virtually every man, woman, girl and boy in the stadium rose to applaud both teams off the pitch in one of the best games most will have seen for years. Who said International football had to be played with such caution. Give us 100mph play like this every day of the week please! The draw probably favours the Egyptians more, who will be firm favourites to beat Belarus on Tuesday and grab a quarter-final spot.
I ventured down to the press area to find the mixed zone to speak to the New Zealand team. I bumped into Emblen, reminding him of the coaching course we took together some 18 years ago (needless to say he didn’t remember it) and he was positive despite the fact the All Whites now have to go and beat Brazil:-
“We still need Egypt to beat Belarus and hope the goal difference goes our way. There’s a lot of hoping to do but we just have to try and be positive. If we have the game of our lives and they have an off day, you never know.”
Back I went down a staircase, along a long corridor with pictures of United legends lining the walls and through a door into a darkened room. For the second time in a little over an hour I found myself lost in the bowels of Old Trafford, randomly trying doors to eventually find myself almost back where I started in the media tribune. I took that as a message, sat back down at my desk with a cup of tea and waited for the Fillet Steak to arrive.
Belarus 1 Brazil 3 – Old Trafford – Sunday 29th July 2012
It seemed everyone wants to be Brazilian in Manchester today. Some United fans had come, red shirt on, covered with a Brazilian cape, to support Rafael, others simply wearing the famous yellow shirts. Seduced by the sunshine, the beaches, the neatly trimmed pubic hair, the carnival and football. The whole of the north west of England had come to Old Trafford expecting a feast of South American razzmatazz. Small kids, with their Salford accents were wearing Kaka and Ronaldo shirts, probably having no idea who THE original Ronaldo was. Football is the glue that binds society together, and there can be no better example of that than in Brazil, where rich and poor support one single cause – the fortune of the national side. To say there was pressure on coach Mano Menezes was an understatement. Having seen the Argentinians win recent Olympic tournaments, and even Uruguay pipe up that every time they had played in the Olympic football tournament they had come away with a Gold medal, there was an expectation that this year was their destiny.
In the run up to kick off, the stadium announcer seemed to be getting a bit confused. Number 1, Gabriel, Number 4 James Tomkins, Number 7 Lucas….Woah, hold up a minute. James Tompkins? How can you confuse a good Championship player who has made the Team GB squad with a South American? Also, who decided to give the PA job to DJ Spoony? At least use someone that has some credibility in football. Presenting 606 once in a while does not qualify you as an expert on football, despite what David Mellor, Robbie Savage and Mike Parry (only once thank God).
The Brazilian starting XI featured talents from Fiorentina, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Internazionale, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Porto. European giants one and all…oh and Tottenham Hotspur. All eyes though would be on Neymar, who was still playing for Santos despite those “envious eyes” from Europe on him, as H G Wells once remarked.
Apart from that upper tier of the SAF Stand, Old Trafford looked pretty full (later officially revealed as 66,212). Had people come to experience the London 2012 Olympics? Of course not. They were here to watch Brazil and with most seats costing less than £40 (including that fantastic earlier game), they had a bargain.
Seven minutes in and the Samba beat suddenly stopped. Ilya Aleksievich threw a cross into the box and Renan Bardini Bressan sneaked in between two Brazilian defenders to head home. Blimey. Hulk then showed all the right attributes of the Olympic spirit by throwing himself to the ground, over the on-rushing Belarussian keeper Gutor, but the Japanese referee was having none of it. He resisted brandishing a yellow card, opting instead to award the Porto striker a 7.3 for technical merit.
Five minutes later and they were on level terms with a very similar move to the opening Belarussian goal. A long cross from the left hand side saw Milan’s Alexandre Pato dive in between the defenders to head the ball home, and lift the roof off the stadium. You just got the feeling this was going to be a long afternoon for the Belarussians. However, they held firm, resistance to Brazil’s frequent incursions to the bye-line where the ball always ended up flying over the heads of the forwards who had run to the near post. Half an hour in and you had to say that Aleksandr Gutor had been the quieter of the two keepers in the first half.
On the hour mark Belarus almost took the lead again when Bardini Bressan saw Neto off his line and tried his luck from twenty five yards only for the Brazilian keeper to just get his hand to the ball and tip it over. And then finally we saw some Brazilian magic. Neymar junked his way past two defenders and was brought down, although replays suggested he simply fell over the prone body of Belarussian captain Dragun. From the free kick he curled the ball into the corner of the net, running off to celebrate with his team mates by pretending to suck on a dummy that he was probably about to spit out in frustration.
Two could have so easily have been three a Oscar curled another free-kick around the wall but it was tipped over the bar by Gutor. Belarus’s spirit had evaporated like a cheap Minsk potato vodka in the last quarter of the game and in truth Brazil were happy to simply keep the ball without really pressing forward. Dare I say it actually became quite dull, and I would have prefered to have watched another twenty minutes of Egypt v New Zealand. However, in injury time they scored a third with one of the few bits of sheer class we had seen. Neymar led two defenders on a merry dance on the edge of the area before back-heeling it to Oscar who had the easiest job to score.
So no real surprises in the end as Brazil coasted to a 3-1 win which put them into the quarter finals, and sent the sixty six thousand fans home happy. They had come to get their slice of Samba, and overall that is what they had got. In previous tournaments the Brazilians had flatter to deceive, coming unstuck against more organised and disciplined opposition. However, there doesn’t seem to be a team in the tournament (based on Spain’s early game) that can offer that.
So my Brazilian weekend was coming to a close. I still had the little matter of a flight back down to London to content with, ready for an Olympic Extravaganza tomorrow. Give me the real Brazil over the Blue Brazil anyday….