I was planning ahead a long time for the latest of my ‘Firsts for 2012’ – in fact I booked the tickets last year. In the bizarre lottery of buying Olympic tickets, we only managed to get football tickets. Of course we didn’t realize at the time that everyone who wanted them got football tickets and indeed I think they were still available just a few days before the games started. This classifies as a ‘first’ on two counts – the first time in our lives that the UK has hosted the Olympics and, in my husband’s case, the first time he’d been to a ‘proper’ football match. I say ‘proper’ since you can’t live in the UK and not see football all around you. A ‘proper’ match means one in a big stadium and not in the park with kit bags for goal posts.
We got three sets of tickets – all for Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. I’ve been before to Old Trafford as well as to a couple of other UK or international stadiums but for Tony this was an absolute first. He was more excited than a kid at Christmas. Sadly we missed our first game – USA versus North Korea in the women’s tournament due to a family medical emergency. With the emergency looking a little less critical, we made it to our second match, a men’s match between Spain and Morocco.
The most important thing to know about the Olympic football tournament is that you won’t see the same national teams who take part in the World Cup or European Cup tournaments. Olympic football is an age-restricted game with the squads comprising players under 23 years old. Just three ‘over aged’ players are allowed though to call them such when they’re only a few years older rather implies they’re sending pensioners onto the pitch. The Spanish senior team is widely considered one of the best teams of all time and has won two European and one World Cup in succession. This should have been a great game. Their Moroccan opponents could be expected to want a good game, and to enjoy a bit of a fight with their neighbours. Unfortunately for us, by the time they came to play for us, it was clear that neither team was progressing beyond the group stages so there was nothing to play for.
We arrived very early. We’re novices and we didn’t want to risk missing the beginning and we’d heard lots of stories about extreme security. We didn’t want to be standing in a line whilst the fun was going on somewhere else. The company I work for has a factory about 20 minutes walk from the stadium so I arranged to leave the car there and walk to the ground. I asked one of the guys in the office how to get there and he told me – quite correctly – to just follow everyone else. He also added that there would be lots of volunteers standing around waving us in the right direction.
The closer you get the more intense the wave of human traffic becomes. We said hello and smiled at all the police that we passed. I figure not many people do and my husband likes to be nice to the police because they keep him in work (he’s a prison officer). As we got close to the stadium people were distributing plastic bags for us to put our belongings into. Anyone with a bag – I had my camera case – had to go to a table for a security check. I emptied the bag, showed the security guy what was in it, and he then sealed it in a big transparent plastic bag. This is not standard behaviour at a football match, but for the Olympics we are all too well aware that there are people who’d love to make a point with an attack, just as happened in Munich 40 years ago.
By the time we’d found our entrance, been given a rub-down search, and had my bag returned to me, we were still nearly an hour before the game was due to start. My husband didn’t care – he was so over-awed by being in Old Trafford and was looking around to take everything in. Large screens in the corners of the ground were showing Olympic news from earlier in the day and an enormous cheer went up for the medal ceremony for Bradley Wiggins who had just won UK’s second gold medal.
The teams came on to warm up for a long while before heading off and getting ready for their entrance. Children carrying the two flags of the competing nations led them in and the teams lined up for the national anthems. Perhaps it says a lot about my ignorance but more likely about the rarity of gold medals for Spain but I didn’t recognise their national anthem at all. I hadn’t expected to recognise Morocco’s but it was certainly the more appealing of the two tunes.
The teams kicked off at 5 pm and the crowd was soon less than impressed with the standards. There were pods of Moroccan or Spanish fans but most of us had bought the tickets without knowing who we would see so there was no great sense of excitement about the game. About 15 minutes in a Mexican wave started and managed to get round the stadium 6 times before dying out to loud boos from those who’s found it more interesting than the game. Neither side seemed to be particularly committed to the game and the standard – considering they were national teams – was pretty pitiful. Each team had one or two outstanding players and rather a lot of distinctly second rate men doing little more than running around trying to look busy.
Shortly before half time it started to rain and in Manchester when it rains it REALLY rains. We were already very happy with our seats but realised just how good they were when most of the people below us started heading up the stand to try to escape the rain. We’d bought seats in the second price band and didn’t get wet, whilst those in the expensive seats were soaked. At one point a powerful jet of water started to spurt from the corner of the stadium where the guttering was presumably blocked or just unable to deal with the volume of water.
The sodden pitch meant things were a bit tricky for the players in the second half but did enable us all to enjoy watching them get absolutely sodden which felt like partial payback for their lack of effort. The game eventually ended as a goalless draw, the worst and most frustrating of possible scores.
The attendance for the game was over thirty five thousand people or roughly half the capacity of the stadium. Since I grew up in a city with a population around that size, I found it incredible that so many people could be squeezed into such a small space. Football pitches always look smaller in real life than on television and crowds somehow seem smaller. We let the first wave of departing attendees clear before we headed out of the stadium and back to our car. The game had been nothing special but we’d enjoyed the atmosphere and the chance in our own small way to be a part of the Olympic experience. We’ll be back on Saturday for another match between Japan and Egypt – I’m just wondering how many Japanese and Egyptian fans they can drum up and if the teams will try a bit harder.