Genuine excitement

At the women’s football semi-final between Japan and France at Wembley on Monday, two super-perky people on the big screens were desperate to gee us all up at every opportunity. They smiled and shouted with the sort of enthusiasm once reserved for children’s television. They played a film with Hollywood stars telling us how great the Olympics were. They got members of the crowd to pose like Usain Bolt.
At half time, with Japan leading 1-0, they could hardly contain their excitement. “What a game!” they yelled. “Fantastic goal!”
There was a problem with this. It hadn’t been much of a game at all and the goal was anything but fantastic. A Japanese player poked the ball over the line after the French goalkeeper made a terrible mistake by coming off her line and getting only a slight touch on the ball.
None of this is any criticism of women’s football, by the way. I’ve seen plenty of atrocious men’s football games. (I grew up in Scotland.) It just wasn’t a great match at that point.
The atmosphere wasn’t helped by tens of thousands of empty seats. Strangely, there were fewer people in the stadium for the women’s semi-final than for the South Korea v Gabon group game in the men’s tournament the week before. (Remember that’s not even the South Korean and Gabon “A” teams, but players under 23 with a few older players thrown in.)
According to FIFA, there were more than 61,000 people in the stadium. That may be seen as a great number for a women’s game but it means Wembley was only about two thirds full.
In the second half, Japan scored again and seemed comfortably on course for the final. But then things changed dramatically. France upped their game and scored a great goal with just 14 minutes to go. Three minutes later they had a penalty! Suddenly and unbelievably, it looked like the game would be heading for extra time. But France put the penalty wide! (That’s the great thing about doing your own blog. You can put exclamation marks in your match reports. Those two are fully justified.)
France kept the pressure on and the closing minutes were thrilling. The crowd became a single living, gasping, yelling thing, responding instinctively to what was happening on the pitch. Four minutes of added time seemed to go on much longer as France tried desperately to get an equaliser. But they fell just short.
Japan were through and their fans celebrated. A woman in a red and white kimono near me waved a Japanese flag in delight. All round, Japanese fans were cheering, chanting and grinning.
If you get an electrifying final 15 minutes, you forget the dull 75 that came before. It’s fantastic. And you don’t need anyone shouting from a big screen to tell you that.


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