There was a men’s football match in London yesterday. It didn’t involve big-name teams. It was between South Korea and Gabon. Not even South Korea and Gabon’s main international teams. And not even at a level of football played at major championships. These were under-23 teams, with three overage players allowed, just to make it all even more strange. It wasn’t a final, a semi-final or even a quarter-final. And no goals were scored.
How many people came to watch this obscure game?
Seventy-six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-seven. And they had a blast.
That’s the Olympic effect. Stick five interlocking rings on Wembley Stadium and announce you’re holding the Olympic football tournament and suddenly you’ll have tens of thousands of people streaming into a drab corner of northwest London on a Wednesday afternoon.
I was in danger of Olympic sensory overload as I walked through the crowds towards the arch above the new Wembley with BBC radio’s dramatic coverage of Bradley Wiggins’s time trial triumph in my earphones.
South Korean fans were out in force, waving their national flags or sporting them as capes and headbands. (We’re a lot better with our Korean flags now, after last week’s bold attempt to revive war on the peninsula via a women’s football match in Glasgow.)
The new Wembley, by the way, is very swanky and I was in a particularly swanky bit. There’s lots of glass and gleaming black stone and fancy restaurants. The posh lavatories (they’re far too smart to be called toilets) have dispensers of Wembley-branded “luxury moisturiser”. My red seat in the stand even had padding. It was a great vantage point from which to observe a lot of people having a great time watching something not very important.
Mexican waves swept round and round all three tiers of the stadium. Thousands oohed and aahed as players missed chances to score. Chants of “Gabon!” went up ahead of a free kick, even though there were few Gabonese in the crowd. A couple in front of me did have a big, green, yellow and blue Gabonese flag but something about their pale complexions suggested they may not have been Libreville born and bred. It turned out they were from Kent and had just decided it would be more fun to support one of the teams.
Personally, I was torn, having a long and deep association with both nations. I believe I have spent a total of three nights in Seoul on two very brief work trips and I was once in a plane than stopped in Gabon for an hour or two. I concluded it was impossible to resolve these conflicting loyalties and decided just to enjoy the football.
This blog has already established an enviable track record in not producing match reports (there’s one here) but I thought it was an entertaining, open game (although that’s not how this guy saw it), even if the overall standard was patchy. I went with an American friend and we were both engrossed, although, to be fair, much of the time we were engrossed in trying to get a picture onto Facebook. The 0-0 draw means South Korea are through to a quarter-final against the British and Gabon are out.
For a lot of people in the stadium, none of that seemed to matter much. It was a chance to see Wembley, have a good time, dress up and wave a flag — any flag. I spotted the British, Swiss, Belgian, Cuban and Canadian colours in the crowd and I’m sure there were others.
After the game, we ended up in a packed sports bar nearby. When the men’s 200m breaststroke final came on the big screens, the crowd in the bar roared and cheered on the two British swimmers. “They can’t hear you, you know,” the barmaid said with a resigned smile amid the noise. I’m guessing they don’t have swimming on the big screens in the Wembley Tavern very often and I’m guessing it wouldn’t normally produce that kind of reaction. There’s that Olympic effect again.