London 2012 Olympics: The beautiful Games
LACK of a Scot in Team GB can’t dampen the enthusiasm of one of the men behind the Olympic football tournament at Hampden … he’s promising a piece of history
If Olympic fever hasn’t quite overwhelmed Scotland yet, when the Games kick off in Glasgow today, it’s a fair bet that Hampden Park will see tens of thousands of spectators keen to be part of history.
Scotland has only previously hosted one Olympic event, the 12 metre yachting class of the 1908 London Games held on the Firth of Clyde and won, incidentally, by the yacht Hera of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club and its all-Scottish crew, who beat their English opponents in the best-of-three race series – no other country entered.
There will be no Scots playing in the eight football matches which Glasgow will host in the last week of July and first week of August. Instead we will see four women’s and six men’s teams, plus two as yet unknown women’s teams, contest group stage matches followed by a women’s quarter-final.
The opening women’s double-header in Glasgow kicks off at 5pm today with the reigning Olympic champions, the USA, playing France. It will be immediately followed by the other opening game in Group G between Colombia and North Korea.
The men’s tournament is for under-23 teams. The Group D participants have to wait until noon tomorrow when the under-23 team of world and European champions Spain will play Japan followed immediately by Honduras against Morocco.
The women are centre stage again on Saturday, with the USA against Colombia followed by France versus Korea.
On Wednesday, 1 August, the men are back with Egypt v Belarus of Group C playing at 2.30pm, with Glasgow’s stint finishing on Friday, 3 August, at noon with the women’s quarter-final most likely featuring USA or France as runners-up in group G who will play the winners of Group F.
There has been controversy over the Olympic football at Hampden, with reportedly poor ticket sales and a slight – quickly corrected – to the Saltire which wasn’t, and then was, suitable for Scottish football’s National Stadium. Now the games are almost upon us and the preparations are under way to transform Hampden Park into a little bit of the Olympic scenery.
Andy Mitchell formerly headed up the Scottish Football Association’s communications department, a job he has not been missing in recent weeks, and is now media manager for the Olympics at Hampden.
Since leaving the SFA he has written two books with his latest, First Elevens, about the early days of international football between Scotland and England.
For all that he has been an insider, Mitchell remains a firm football enthusiast and he is convinced that Scottish fans will come out to see the Olympics. With tickets as low as £20, it seems a small price to pay to say ‘I was there’ at an Olympic Games.
“The fans will see something different.” says Mitchell. “There will be very much a sense of ‘this is the Olympics’ with the whole look of the stadium and the decoration all different.
“Even the refreshment stalls will be totally different, with a menu that is not your traditional pie and Bovril but is very much an international menu.”
The lack of Scots or even Team GB does not lessen his enthusiasm: “As far as the Olympics organisation is concerned we knew some time ago that Team GB would not be playing in Glasgow. But that doesn’t take away any of the pressure about putting on a good show.”
Mitchell and all his marketing and public relations colleagues are out to gain the widest possible audience for the Olympics in Glasgow. “There’s something very special about it,” said Mitchell. “It’s very much the kind of event for people to go to if they have never been to football before. There are football matches every weekend in Scotland which are attractive in their own right, but this is a bit of history. A lot of people are supporting the events and it’s not your typical football audience as we’re offering a different kind of entertainment. We hope the atmosphere will be buzzing and that it will be a pleasant sports-minded atmosphere.”
But what about the football fan, the dedicated follower of the beautiful game – what’s in it for him and her? Mitchell explained: “You will get the chance to see unusual teams that you wouldn’t normally get the chance to see and there will be a sprinkling of famous names in there, too, both in the men’s and women’s football. There will also be some complete unknowns like the women from North Korea and the men from Honduras, but that is what makes it so different.”
Ticket sales are “buoyant” for the opening match between Spain and Japan, and no wonder. The Spanish squad is likely to include players from the Euro 2012 finals such as Juan Mata of Chelsea, who scored in the final against Italy, and his Chelsea team-mate, Oriol Romeu. Jordi Alba, scorer of that quite magnificent second goal in the Euro 2012 final, is in the squad as is Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea. Thiago Alcantara of Barcelona and Iker Muniain of Athletic Bilbao, a £30 million-rated target for English clubs, are other big names.
Japan qualified by beating Bahrain in their final group match in Tokyo, with Syria three points behind them. It’s their fifth consecutive appearance in the Olympics and ninth overall.
Though most of the squad plays in Japan, the current Asian Games champions are likely to feature such Germany-based players as Gotoku Sagai of VfB Stuttgart and Yuki Otsu of Borussia Moenchengladbach. Mitchell thinks this game could take a trick with the Scottish public: “Since Spain announced their squad a few days ago a few of the old football hands I’ve been talking to are quite astonished at the quality they have in their under-23 team. Even on a Thursday afternoon, Hampden will be buzzing for that one.”
Honduras and Morocco are not expected to win the tournament, but they have plenty of young stars as do Egypt and Belarus, the latter side making their Olympic debut.
The women’s group is set to be dominated by the USA and France. Mitchell said: “The American women are strong across the park. But they will be given a very strong run by the French, who are packed with players from Olympique Lyonnais who have just won the women’s Champions League in Europe.
“We are starting off with what is probably the highest level encounter you’ll see in the group stages and those two teams could be playing in the final.”
Mitchell stresses that this is a “once in a lifetime” chance to be part of the Olympics: “The football tournament starts two days before the opening ceremony so the matches not just at Hampden but elsewhere in the UK on that Wednesday and Thursday have the stage to themselves.
“The focus might switch to athletics and other sports after the opening ceremony, but the world will certainly be paying attention to the opening football matches.
“We have eight games, six of them being played in four days, but we have no concerns about the Hampden pitch. The surface is fabulous and it has not been played on for weeks so it is in top notch condition.
“It is all different, but it is sporting history, of that there’s no doubt.”
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