“He is a lizard,” spits the beefy gentleman sitting a few rows over from the press tribunes. It’s a cold, wet summer afternoon at an almost full Wembley, and the atmosphere is surprisingly raucous at the home of football. Mexican waves do the business and boos ring out every time a wiry player in a blue shirt gets a touch of the ball. The player is Luis Suarez.
The Liverpool forward is a much-hated figure ever since his racist bust-up with Patrice Evra and it seems the people don’t seem to care who he turns up for; they have decided to root against him and his team.
This is surprising because Uruguay is perhaps the best team on show in this Olympics football. Aside from Suarez, they have the Napoli forward Edinson Cavani, the gifted Bologna playmaker Gaston Ramirez and the big Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates.
It is clear that Uruguay take their Olympics football seriously; not for nothing is their full team still called the Celeste Olimpica, a name earned after their double Olympic triumphs that pre-dated their World Cup wins. Uruguay then have a storied history in Olympic football, a tournament which is strangely charming in its very nature. How else would you describe a showpiece that Brazil have never won, yet Hungary have won thrice?
Sadly, football in the Olympics remains the poorer cousin to the World Cup. There is only a sprinkling of superstars in this tournament — the Brazilian Neymar and the combined Great Britain team’s Ryan Giggs chief among them. Yet this edition’s tournament is crammed with subplots: can Brazil finally win the last football trophy that still eludes them? Can Great Britain put England to shame by medalling? Might Uruguay’s current golden generation nab the prize that first made the country’s name?
The reason for the beguiling charm surrounding Olympics football can probably be traced back to its roots. Take for instance Paris 1924, where the Swiss team reached the final and then planned to go home without playing it.
Apparently, their 10-day rail passes, bought when the Games began, expired before the match. Luckily, the Zurich newspaper Sport organised a collection for new tickets, though with hindsight it needn’t have bothered: the Swiss lost the final 3-0 to Uruguay.
That final though was watched by 60,000 people with many more queued outside waiting to be let in. The South Americans found this a chance too good to let pass and following their win, the government issued embossed stamps with the words “Uruguay Campeon de Football.”
Watching this current edition of the Uruguayans at Wembley on Sunday, it was harder to believe that they would be able to pull this title out of the bag. After a scrappy win in their first game against UAE, they managed to collapse to Senegal’s rag-tag bunch of Olympians. Little known Moussa Konate scored twice. He turns out in the Israeli league for Maccabi. Their best-known player is Mohamed Diame, who turns out for Wigan Athletic in the Premier League.
It would however be foolish to count out the Senegalese.
Something similar was done to the Nigerian side in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Arriving at the Games in financial chaos, they stayed at hostels and motels, and ate brunches at run-down Chinese places. Their Dutch coach, Jo Bonfrere paid for most of their meals out of his own pocket. Yet, they won gold and en route beat a Brazil team containing Rivaldo in the semifinal. Nwankwo Kanu, who scored the winner in that game, called it “the most beautiful moment of my life.”
The element of strangeness looks set to continue in this edition.
After Senegal’s 10-man side saw off Uruguay yesterday, UAE were at one point equalised with Team GB. But although the combined British team pulled back to win comfortably, the tournament had already lost its best team on Sunday. World and double European champions Spain bowed out after two consecutive defeats, to Japan and Honduras.
Here is to unpredictability.
-With The Daily Star input