If I needed proof that I was about to attend something out of the ordinary yesterday evening, it came on Radyr station when I saw a middle aged man waiting to catch the train with his daughter (she cannot have been more than about five) who was proudly clutching her Union flag. This was for an international game being played at the Millennium Stadium – strange days indeed! Once I got to Cardiff, that man and his young kid must have felt more at home than I did – there were families everywhere and if there was the usual male majority going to the match, then there wasn’t much in it (I’d say the split between the sexes was something like 60/40). There was the occasional Welsh Dragon to be seen, but they were virtually lost amongst the sea of Union Jacks, while, if there was a predominant shirt colour among the 70,000 plus crowd it was GB white (it certainly wasn’t the Riverside chocolate and amber I had on!).
Besides the unusual colours the crowd were wearing and the strange flags they were waving, the nature of this crowd was different as well. They were, to a man, woman and child, optimistic and good natured and, even in a game which didn’t offer a great deal in terms of entertainment, they remained right behind their side throughout with barely a criticism of the team, or the individuals within it to be heard – I knew I was at a football match because that’s what the twenty two young men were playing in front of me, but there were times when I had to do a double take to make sure this was the case!
To be honest, I found being part of such a crowd a strange experience. I’m not someone who gets that worked up at football matches in terms of obviously showing my feelings, but the whole occasion seemed somewhat antiseptic to me – there was nothing I could get fully committed to. Maybe, this was because I was more anti the Great Britain team concept than I thought I was – the political arguments regarding having a side drawn from the four home unions had largely passed me by because, rightly or wrongly, I just didn’t think what was happening was anything else but a one off to celebrate a unique occasion. However, I had watched Great Britain play their three previous games and quite enjoyed what I thought were all decent football matches, but, even with the pretty sizeable contingent of Welsh players present, they never really felt like “my team” – quite what Scottish and Northern Irish football fans would have felt from watching the assortment of English and Welsh players picked to represent them I don’t know.
As for the match itself, well on a day when the good sporting news wasn’t just confined to the Olympics (City won 2-1 at Oxford thanks to a trademark Peter Whittingham free kick and a rare goal from Filip Kiss, Kevin Pietersen put South Africa to the sword with a superb hundred in the test match and even Glamorgan won!), it has to be said that the 70,000 at the Millennium Stadium last night drew the short straw – there was little on show to justify the enthusiasm shown by the majority of a crowd desperate to be caught up in the feelgood factor that has been so prevalent in the past week.
Instead, what they got was a cagey affair where two packed midfield’s ended up virtually cancelling each other out. That said, you couldn’t help thinking that, even though it took penalties, the right side emerged triumphant in the end. In the first half especially, South Korea were the ones that forced the issue – GB just couldn’t get going and the Koreans had twice gone close before Sunderland’s Ji Dong-won fired in a good shot which Jack Butland allowed to burst through his hands into the net. This was harsh on the Birmingham keeper who, up to then, had been having an impressive tournament (apart from some occasional poor kicking that is), but, within minutes, it seemed that Butland’s error would count for nothing as two , correct in my opinion, penalty decisions by the Colombian ref threatened to turn the match on it’s head.
For the first of them, Aaron Ramsey squeezed in a spot kick uncannily similar to the one he scored for Wales against Switzerland at the Liberty Stadium last autumn – even down to the keeper probably thinking he should have saved it. Goalkeepers can often have problems getting down to low shots which are quite close to their body if those shots are hit from close range, but the twelve yards from the penalty spot seems too far away for such a policy to succeed that often to me and yet when you have the ability Ramsey does, you do wonder if this is a deliberate policy on his part, because his second effort only differed in that it was hit to the other side of the keeper who was able to make a pretty simple save. Interestingly, Ramsey took a more conventional penalty in scoring during the shoot out, so, if those earlier spot kicks were a deliberate policy on his part, let’s hope he has ditched it now.
What needs to be said about the Welsh playmaker though is that he was willing to stand up and be counted when it came to taking a penalty – when the first one was given, I was expecting Bellamy or Sturridge to take it, but I was not altogether surprised to see Ramsey step forward because, even if his career has not gone as he would have hoped in the last few months, one can never question his bravery as a footballer. I’m not knocking Joe Allen here (he would be my nominee for Welsh footballer of 2012 if a vote were held now), but, although he generally performs his job well (didn’t think he was anywhere near his best last night mind), he plays something of a no risk game. Aaron Ramsey’s role generally means that there is more onus on him to “make something happen” for his team and with that comes the risk of giving the ball away – Ramsey has to take the risks that Allen doesn’t need to and, with that comes the knowledge that the critics will always be there to pick holes in his game when, as has been happening lately, it isn’t quite at it’s optimum level.
It was no coincidence that GB enjoyed the better of the second half as Ramsey became more of a factor after the break – most of the good things GB did going forward in the second forty five minutes saw the ex City midfielder play a part somewhere along the way, but, as mentioned earlier, defeat would have been harsh on a South Korea side who had the better of what chances were around during a a pretty even half an hour of extra time. In the end, GB’s interest in this international competition ended in the same manner that so many others do when Englishmen are involved. This time it was Daniel Sturridge’s turn, to be the “villain”, but at least Britain’s elimination should mean a resolution in the Craig Bellamy to Cardiff saga that has run all summer – Bellamy (far more subdued last night than he had been previously in the tournament) is still widely tipped to be coming home to Cardiff for 2012/13, while a decision on Kim Bo-Kyung (who spent ages jogging up and down the touchline right in front of me as he hoped, in vain, for a chance to figure) is going to have to wait until after South Korea’s midweek Semi Final (at least) with Brazil before his work permit application can be considered by the Home Office.