Over the summer on Mis Viajes en Fútbol I’m going to take a look back at some older trips I’ve taken which I’ve been meaning to write up for some time, but keeping up to date with my current travels is proving enough of a challenge!
First up, we’re firing up the Delorean to head back to the summer of 2012, when the London Olympics gripped the country. And I got involved, sort of.
So let’s get this straight, I don’t really feel Football should be part of the Olympics.
For me, they should represent the peak of the sports involved. And in football that’s the World Cup. But Olympic football goes back way beyond the establishment of the World Cup, in fact it was the two Olympic wins by Uruguay in the 1920’s (and the style with which they did it) that was one of the main reasons behind Jules Rimet and FIFA establishing their own world championship. Uruguay continue to count those two gold medals as world titles – hence the four stars on their crest.
South American teams have tended to show it a lot more respect than their European counterparts. Brazil were always obsessed with winning it because it was the only major international honour they had never won, Argentina traditionally sent strong squads, their 2004 gold medal winners featuring Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, the latter of whom returned four years later as part of one of the most star-studded Olympic football squads of the modern era alongside Riquelme, Agüero, Di María, Banega, Lavezzi and a certain Lionel Messi. Of course at time of writing, this is the only major honour he has won with Argentina.
Who to see?
Once we’d decided to go to the Olympic Football tournament, we had the big decision of where to go and who to see.
Tickets were a remarkably cheap £20 and entitled you to entry to both matches of a double-header in each group and knowing the draw when we booked tickets in May definitely helped. (I know of more than one person who bought tickets for one of the final group games at Wembley through the lottery and ended up watching South Korea v Gabon – 0-0 of course)
Having narrowed it down to Sunday 29th July, we had three real choices. The group involving an immensely talented Spain side (De Gea! Mata! Alba! Isco!) which would be played in Newcastle, the group with ‘Team GB’ at Wembley or Brazil’s group at Old Trafford.
It was an easy choice. None of us had ever seen Brazil play before and with their World Cup only two years away they were sure to send a strong squad. Plus Manchester is a great city to spend a weekend in and being well away from the inflated prices of the main host city, we could look forward to a relatively inexpensive weekend.
I think the squad selections definitely justified our decision. Scandalously no Northern Ireland players made it into the ‘Team GB’ squad (an England Under-21 team with a few token Welsh players as they were playing one match in Cardiff) but Brazil would line up with Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Hulk, Pato, Oscar and most excitingly of all, the next big star of the Seleçao, Neymar. Certainly beats Marvin Sordell anyway.
The National Football Museum
Originally the plan after we arrived on Saturday afternoon was to look for a pre-season friendly somewhere within the Greater Manchester area which was easily reachable on public transport. I can’t really remember if there just weren’t any interesting games on that afternoon or not, but we ended up deciding on visiting the recently-opened National Football Museum instead.
I’m fairly sure that the inspiration behind going here came from watching a BBC Breakfast news report about the museum’s opening only a few weeks before we travelled to Manchester. The museum had originally been located in Preston, so its move to Manchester at the start of July 2012 came at an opportune time for us.
Entry back then was free although since the start of 2019 that only applies to residents of Manchester, everyone else has to pay £10. Based on our visit back in 2012 this still represents amazing value.
So on to match day itself at Old Trafford…
Very much living up to the traditional stereotype, it was a grey, rainy day in Manchester.
The Warm-Up Act – Egypt v New Zealand
To say we were looking forward to Egypt v New Zealand would probably have been an exaggeration. I mean, it was a random football match, exactly the kind of game you love getting a tournaments, but we all felt it would probably be a low-scoring affair and it was really just an appetiser for the main course to come later on.
However, this game did afford us the opportunity to see one of Africa’s greatest ever players in action. Mohamed Aboutrika was playing for Egypt as one of their three overage players. The New Zealand squad contained a number of players who had featured for them in the 2010 World Cup, where they finished as the only unbeaten team in the tournament after drawing all three of their group games. The biggest name was Ryan Nelsen, who had a decent Premier League career with Blackburn, Spurs and QPR, while Chris Wood would go on to seemingly play for half the clubs in the Championship (mostly on loan) before eventually getting his Premier League move with Burnley in 2017.
It was Wood who opened the scoring on 17 minutes, nodding in Tommy Smith’s flick on to put New Zealand ahead, but the lead didn’t last and Aboutrika played the ball through to a certain Mohamed Salah, who just stayed onside to equalise and do something he has thus far failed to do in his otherwise exceptional Liverpool career – score at Old Trafford.
The game was a real surprise – becoming a bit of an end-to-end thriller in the second half as both sides tried to get a winner. Salah was particularly wasteful, missing a couple of one-on-ones with the New Zealand keeper, while Egypt depended on a bit of last-ditch defending to keep out their opponents. The atmosphere was helped by some extremely enthusiastic New Zealand fans near us and in all honesty, it was hard to argue either side didn’t deserve at least a point.
The Main Event – Brazil v Belarus.
So as the teams warmed up and more fans filtered in for the second game, the official Olympics ‘hype man’ was trying to get the crowd going although the most entertaining part of his act was reading out the teams and the reaction when he announced James Tomkins in the Brazil squad. This wasn’t entirely his fault as the screens around the ground (and obviously the official team sheets) had somewhat mystifyingly listed the West Ham defender, there of course as part of the Great Britain team, in amongst the Brazil substitutes.
The atmosphere did pick up when the teams came out, a large Brazilian contingent in the ground welcoming their heroes with some gusto. And of course, it was a Brazilian who opened the scoring… except it was the one playing for Belarus, Renan Bressan making the most of some slack marking to head home. This wasn’t in the script.
But Brazil weren’t shaken too badly by the blow of going behind, continuing to probe and press so it was no surprise when Neymar’s cross picked out Pato and he levelled things up.
It just seemed like a matter of time before Brazil got another but they ended up being frustrated by Belarus, who defended deep and made it difficult for them to get space in the final third. It was going to take something special to open up the game and of course Neymar was the man to provide it. Halfway through the second half Brazil were awarded a free kick just outside the area and their number 11 stepped up to curl the ball into the net beyond the despairing dive of the Belarus ‘keeper.
And to just underline his talent, he was also involved in the final goal, a sumptuous backheel assist for Oscar, newly signed for Chelsea of course, in injury time which sealed the victory and with it Brazil’s passage into the quarter finals.
Everything seemed set up for them to win that elusive Olympic Gold Medal until they came unstuck in the final against Mexico at Wembley. They would have to wait another four years to end their wait, though in fairness, doing so on home soil in Rio de Janeiro probably made it all that more special.
Reflections from 2019
Looking back on that afternoon and the players we saw plenty has changed.
It was easy to see that Neymar would go on and become a superstar. Within a year of this he’d signed for Barcelona and through linking up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, matured into one of the best players in the world.
Yet things have turned sour in recent years following his controversial record-breaking move to Paris Saint-Germain. It’s not all been his fault, injuries have caused him to miss significant chunks of both seasons he’s been there. But there’s been much more focus on the petulant side of his game and personality too and many people feel he made the move for wrong reasons.
Elsewhere in that Brazil team we have Thiago Silva, who has cleaned up in France as captain of PSG and just lifted the Copa America with his country, Marcelo, who has probably had the most successful club career of any of them, winning four European Cups in five years with Real Madrid. Oscar and Hulk have also had good careers in Europe before dropping off the radar thanks to the lure of a big payday in China.
Then there are the ones who never quite made it, such as Pato, a brilliant player on his day for Milan, but one whose career will always be overshadowed by his constant injury troubles. Leandro Damiao, who for a while was on the verge of joining a Premier League club (usually Tottenham) every transfer window, but is currently playing in Japan, his only stint in Europe being an unsuccessful loan spell at Betis. And then there’s Ganso, Neymar’s club mate at Santos and tipped for similarly great things, but after a few years hindered by injuries and a disappointing time at Sevilla, he’s back playing in Brazil.
And poor James Tomkins never did make it to the senior Brazil squad…
Ironically one of the biggest stars-in-waiting we saw that day was playing in the first match. Though I’m not sure anyone inside Old Trafford that day would have predicted the meteoric rise of Mohamed Salah into one of the most clinical finishers in the European game.
Going to the Olympics only whetted my appetite to experience proper tournament football, thankfully I would only have four more years to wait before going to see Northern Ireland at Euro 2016. The very idea of that would have seemed fanciful back in July 2012.
Coming soon: Before Neymar and Mbappe, even before Zlatan and Cavani, there was Jeremy Menez. The next Retro Trip is to Year Zero at PSG.