London 2012: Olympic Football
When we purchased our tickets to Olympic football (soccer) a year ago, we had no idea which teams would be playing. We made our choice based on the stadium (we wanted to spend some time in Wales to see Cardiff and the Millenium Stadium) and the price (the quarterfinal match was within our family-of-5 budget, and we figured that the crappy teams would have been weeded out by the quarterfinals, so we'd get a decent match). So it was a delighful surprise to find out that Team GB had been placed into Group A, and that we would be watching the winner of group A play in our semifinal. And when Team GB actually did win the lottery, we felt like we had won the gold medal already. We'd only be watching one match -- and it would be Team GB! We were already looking forward to the event, but now our excitement had reached fever pitch.
At least, that's what I thought, until we reached Cardiff's Millenium Stadium and joined the crowds waiting to enter. Practically EVERYONE was wearing red, white and blue. Waving flags. Wearing flags. Wearing goofy hats. Painting their faces. Blowing horns. Now THAT's fever pitch. For this match, at least, there was no England, Wales and Scotland -- there was just Team GB, and it seemed like the whole nation had come to Cardiff to support their football team.
The crowd was 70,000 strong, filling the stadium to capacity. To our delight, we had seats in the 6th row, almost close enough for the footballers' drops of sweat to reach our faces (we figure the organizers gave us premium seats and closed the upper tiers due to low ticket sales, then reopened the upper tiers once it turned out that Team GB would be playing and everyone would be buying tickets at the last minute). We got to see many of the English Premier League stars close up: Micah Richards of Manchester City FC, Daniel Sturridge and Ryan Bertrand of Chelsea FC, Aarom Ramsey of ArsenalFC....
The match organizers sent out huge beach balls into the crowd. They passed a giant Wenlock banner over people's heads. We participated in a crowd wave that went around 4 or 5 times, the longest I've ever done. Every 5 minutes or so, all through the game, the crowd broke out into a Team GB cheer and group clap. Horns were blowing continuously. We were too excited to eat. The crowd energy was high. It was infectious. It reached the stratosphere!
Unfortunately, all the cheers and screams in the world didn't help Team GB; despite Team GB's renewed efforts, South Korea held them to a 1-1 tie to the 90th minute, through the 30-minute extra time period and to penalty kicks. The tension in the stadium was almost unbearable! Team GB's Aaron Ramsey, Tom Cleverley, Craig Dawson and Ryan Giggs all smashed their penalty kicks in, as did Jacheol Koo, Sungdong Baek, Seokho Hwang, and Jongwoo Park of South Korea. Daniel Sturridge (who plays for Chelsea FC) kicked last for Team GB.... and kicked the ball straight at substitute goalkeeper Bumyoung Lee. Finally, midfielder Sungyueng Ki buried his shot, and buried Team GB's medal hopes with it.
It was a slightly (okay, devastatingly) deflating end to an otherwise amazing evening, but to the crowd's credit, there were no boos whatsoever (English football fans have a nasty habit of booing their own team when they lose), and genuine applause and cheers for the delighted South Korean team. To be fair, they did play wonderfully, possibly maybe even better than Team GB, so I can't say they didn't deserve to win. Yes, we were disappointed that Team GB is out of the Olympic football tournament -- winning a medal would have gone such a long way to dispel the negative attitude that many English, Welsh and Scottish people have towards fielding a united team for all of Great Britain. But hopefully the fact that the team got this far is a good sign.
Our Olympic football experience didn't end with the match. While walking to Cardiff Castle the next morning, we came upon 3 men walking towards us, dressed in identical red, white and blue track suits. They turned out to be Team GB football coach Stuart Pierce and 2 of his coaching assistants. Stuart Pierce is a former Man United player and England captain, former Manchester City manager and England's Under-21 coach, so running into him at random is a Big Thing. It all happened so quickly, and I was too busy gaping, so I didn't have the presence of mind to whip my phone out and snap a quick photo -- but Alfie did remember to greet him -- "Hey, Stuart, nice to see you!" -- and shake his hand (even Jammy shook his hand!). I was so star-struck, all I managed to do was clap my hands and babble, "Thank you, well done!". Given the result of the game, I hope he didn't take that as a sarcastic comment, because it wasn't. Thank goodness, I did manage to say, "We're proud of you!", which earned a smile and a "Thank You".