It is just before 11.30 as the train pulls out of Leeds station to Newcastle, the Olympic adventure for my son and I has begun. At this stage it is not apparent if there are others like us making their way to watch the opening games in Group B. However, as we progress further North with stops at York, Darlington and Durham, individuals, families and school-parties get on and soon the carriage is full of chatter about the Olympics and football.
Appropriately, just ninety minutes later we arrive in Newcastle and the station has additional signage to indicate the way out and walk to St James’ Park. There are numerous Olympic volunteer staff to direct the throng of people making its way to the North end of the city. Within ten minutes we turn off St James’ Boulevard and suddenly the impressive structure that is St James’ Park is there in front of us, bedecked with the distinctive colours and symbols of the XXX Olympiad. The sky is grey and a drizzle falls as we make our way to get a programme. Then as we look to find our turnstile we encounter our first contact with the security requirements for the game as we are issued with two clear plastic bags. One is small for the contents of pockets for items such as wallets, keys, mobiles, loose change etc. The second is for any bags people my have. It is also explained to us that the only food allowed in the ground is fruit and health bars, so we find a haven from the rain and munch our way through what was supposed to last us all day! So now full to bursting, we make our way to our entrance. As we do so it is noticeable that with some thirty minutes to kick-off there is a massive queue at the ticket collection point. Before we can enter the stadium we are given a standing search by a security guard and then take our plastic bags through with us. It takes place in minutes and we are quickly in the stadium. However, my one observation, is that whilst every spectator will have a body search today, the contents of the plastic bags are not in anyway checked. Surely that is a security risk? Also, on this occasion I could simply have concealed any food and drink in something like a rucksack.
Thankfully the drizzle has stopped and we are shown our seats by stewards who appear to be the usual St James’ Park staff, which means they are able to easily deal with the many queries about the ground and the seating areas from spectators not used to the stadium. The ground is as impressive on the inside as it is from the outside. The Olympic Rings adorn various parts of the stands and the stadium is stripped bare of all its usual branding and advertising. The atmosphere is very different to that of match-days we experience week-in, week-out. There are so many neutrals watching who are just here to take in the experience which creates an almost carnival atmosphere. Looking round the stands as kick-off approaches, it is evident that the Mexicans have by far the largest group of support, with many sporting the green of Mexico. There numbers are swelled by groups wearing Blackpool beach sombrero’s, Manuel style moustache’s and possessing Geordie accents! There are also pockets of South Korean fans, who are starting to make themselves heard.
Looking at the squads today, for Mexico, all the players except Giovani dos Santos (who is at Tottenham currently) ply their trade with Mexican clubs, although defender Carlos Salcido had spell at Fulham between 2010 and the start of 2012. South Korea have names that spark British familiarity, with Ki Sung-Yeung at Celtic, and forwards Park Chu-Young at Arsenal and Ji Dong-Won at Sunderland. In addition, there is Cardiff City summer signing Kim Bo-Kyung to watch out for.
Mexico (0) 0 – 0 (0) South Korea
Mexico: José Corona (c), Carlos Salcido, Hiram Mier, Dárvin Chávez, Diego Reyes, Nestor Vidrio, Héctor Herrera (Jorge Enríquez ), Javier Aquino, Miguel Ponce, Marco Fabián (Raúl Jiménez ), Oribe Peralta (Giovani dos Santos )
South Korea: Jung Sung-Ryong, Yun Suk-Young, Kim Young-Kwon, Hwang Seok-Ho, Kim Chang-Soo, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kim Bo-Kyung, Nam Tae-Hee (Ji Dong-Won ), Koo Ja-Cheol (c), Park Jong-Woo, Park Chu-Young (Baek Sung-Dong )
South Korea start the better of the teams and look technically very good with some neat and crisp passing and possession football. They dominate the opening half and win a number of corners. However, chances are few and far between with efforts from Park Chu-Young, Nam Tae-Hee, Park Jong-Woo and Koo Ja-Cheol not troubling José Corona in the Mexican goal. The experienced Mexico team have little to show for their opening forty five minutes work, but do at least get a shot on target just before half-time from Hector Herrera. It has in truth been a cagey first-half, but it doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The second-half sees the Mexican wave go round the stands. Does it count as the ‘real-thing’, a collectors item, as it is carried out by Mexican’s? On the pitch, South Korea continue to dominate and on fifty two minutes, Koo Ja-Cheol hits the crossbar, with another chance coming their way just two minutes later when Ki Sung-Yueng forces an excellent save from Mexico keeper José Corona. However, Mexico start to respond and just before the hour Javier Aquino has an effort pushed away by Jung Sung-Ryong. As with the first-half it is a tight game, but there are three good goal scoring opportunities in the last ten minutes. On eighty minutes Koo Ja-Cheol has an excellent chance from a corner, but his header goes wide. Then with just three minutes to go a probing through ball finds Mexican substitute Giovani dos Santos with space between two defenders, but his stretched left foot effort loops wide. An even better chance falls in time added-on to another substitute, Raúl Jiménez who latches onto a through ball from Giovani dos Santos, but can only clip the post with his curling effort. On reflection a draw is probably the right result, although Mexico could come to rue those two late missed chances.
With one game over it is time to stretch the legs, grab some refreshment and have a look around. In no time at all we are taking our seats for the second match.
Gabon (1) 1 – 1 (1) Switzerland
Gabon: Didier Ovono (c), Muller Dinda, Henri Ndong, Franck Engonga, Alexander N’Doumbou, Lévy Madinda, Merlin Tandjigora, Mabikou Boussoughou, Jerry Obiang, Allen Nono (Axel Meye , Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Switzerland: Diego Benaglio (c), Michel Morganella, Fabian Schär, Timm Klose, Ricardo Rodríguez, Fabian Frei, Xavier Hochstrasser, Oliver Buff, Steven Zuber, (Pajtim Kasami ), Admir Mehmedi, Innocent Emeghara (Amir Abrashi ).
The second game of the day kicks-off at 5.15 and it is evident that most of the Mexican and South Korean fans have departed. With very few Gabon fans in evidence and only a very small number of Swiss fans, it was nothing like the carnival atmosphere of the opening fixture. There was a brief shower before kick-off, but now that it has stopped, for the first time today, there is a brief glimpse of sunshine and blue-sky. In terms of any British interest in this game, the Swiss have on the bench the Fulham player Pajtim Kasami. Whilst the Gabon squad have a French connection with keeper Didier Ovono at Le Mans UC 72, Alexander N’Doumbou on loan at Orleans, Merlin Tandjigora at USJA Carquefou and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Saint-Étienne. This is Aubameyang’s second major tournament of the year having appeared in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (back in January), where he finished the tournament as joint leading scorer with three goals.
Gabon look incredibly nervous at the back in the opening exchanges and it is no surprise when they concede a penalty within the first five minutes. As a Swiss attack switches from left to right, the ball breaks to Innocent Emeghara who is blatantly and clumsily fouled by Henri Ndong. The Dynamo Kiev forward Admir Mehmedi takes the penalty and scores, but is ordered to retake it after his teammates have encroached into the area. However, Mehmedi keeps his cool to slot home again and the prospect of not seeing a goal in two games today has been banished. The Swiss are making inroads down the Gabon left and another move on nineteen minutes should have seen them get a second goal. From a cross-shot Mehmedi has an empty goal from a yard out, but somehow manages to make no contact with the ball allowing Gabon keeper Ovono to gather. Gradually Gabon get into the game, with Jerry Obiang hitting the bar, which encourages the neutrals in the crowd to get behind the African team, with outbreaks of “…Gabon, Gabon, Gabon, Gabon, Gabon, Gabon…GABON…” in the style of the opening of Gary Glitter’s I’m the Leader of the Gang emerging from the stands. The crowd has more to cheer when in the last minute of the first-half Saint-Étienne striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slots home for Gabon to level the game at 1-1. The opening forty-five minutes has at times been a physical encounter, with bookings for Swiss players Klose and Buff and Nono for Gabon.
The second-half seems to disappear in a flash. With the crowd still behind Gabon, the Swiss fans do their best to rally their team with cow-bells ringing out and chants of “Hupp Swiss”. There is an early booking for Merlin Tandjigora but chances prove to be few in the second-half. On the hour, Aubameyang heads Lévy Madinda’s corner straight at Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio, while Gabon keeper Didier Ovono denies Swiss substitute Pajtim Kasami on sixty eight minutes. The Swiss have another good chance five minutes later but Fabian Frei drags it wide. Oliver Buff is then sent off for a second bookable offence on seventy eight minutes for diving in the box. Despite the numerical advantage, Gabon can’t press home the advantage and indeed in time added-on, the Swiss have another opportunity to win the game, but Hochstrasser curls his free-kick over the bar. At the whistle the Gabon team complete a lap of honour to thank the crowd for their support and that was it – the opening games in Group B have been completed and both have ended in draws.
With the players now leaving the pitch, it is our turn as supporters to depart. There is a gentle murmur of appreciative noise as the crowd disperses into the streets around the ground. Once again, there are plenty of volunteers and police in evidence to give directions and offer assistance which is good to see. As we wander back to the railway station, my son and I reflect on our first taste of Olympic football. Quite simply, it has been an enjoyable event. There is not the pressure of watching your own team and there has been a great atmosphere created by the various sets of fans. In the row in front of us, three generations of a family had come to watch – it was an occasion to remember, an event to be shared. I know I’m glad I made to journey to Newcastle today, and also know that in years to come I’ll recall with my son the day we went to see Olympic football at the 2012 Games.