Yesterday, Mexico defeated Gabon 2-0 then the Republic of Korea worked hard to beat Switzerland 2-1 in group B of the men’s Olympic football tournament. Not the sort of matches that get much attention here – although South Korea and California showed an interest – but a great day out and a great advert for Coventry, which hosted the two matches.
The ‘City of Coventry’ stadium – better known as Coventry City’s Ricoh Stadium, as on the permanent road signs and not entirely removed from the stadium itself (Olympic rules require venues to at least attempt to remove the names of sponsors) is the smallest venue for London 2012 Olympic football, with 32,609 seats. It felt quite intimate, partly of the number of seats, partly because they are pretty close together. It also kept us all dry during a cloudburst between the two matches, which were mostly played in sunlight, while as a new pillar-free stadium it gave everyone a great view.
It also allowed great people-watching. Most of the crowd were Midlanders (for the Olympics, the Cotswolds becomes a honorary part of the Midlands), with lots of families having a fun day out – those in front had a picnic, and the eldest daughter made great use of her Olympic mascot toy in both annoying her father and taunting the envious small boys on the row down from them.
There were also real fans, a few Gabon supporters and some Mexican ones – although I suspect that those wearing comedy sombreros and shawls were locals – but things really kicked off for the second match (only in noise terms in the stands, although there were some handbag-style antics on the pitch and afterwards with a Swiss player expelled for a racist tweet). The Swiss appear to be equivalent to British fans, except speaking French and with the odd cowbell.
But the Koreans were amazing. In two sections of the ground, and scattered around the rest of it, they had co-ordinated drumming that sounded like something off Radio 3’s Late Junction, which went on for most of the match; a giant flag that appeared with their national anthem then vanished soon after; and a habit of squealing with excitement whenever one of their players got near the Swiss goal. And comedy wigs. It was great fun.
And the match was good too – the Koreans played skilfully and outclassed Switzerland in the first half, although they didn’t get their first goal until the second, a great header from Park Chu-young (an Arsenal player, although one who only played for the first team once last season). The Swiss improved in the second and Innocent Emeghara deserved his equally great consolation goal. But the Korean penalty scored by Kim Bok-yung – which even I can take a picture of – produced what seemed like the right result.
The real winners were the volunteers, who organised the parking and walking route to and from the ground. I wouldn’t say they were professional – they were better than that, doing a great job while joking, smiling and welcoming tens of thousands of people. The opening ceremony was all about the wit and stories of the people of Britain, represented here by the volunteers. Coventry should be proud of them.