Carpe diem

London 2012 Paralympics 7-a-side Football, Preliminaries Pool A
Russian v Argentina (9am)
Netherlands v Iran (11.15am)
Saturday, 1st September 2012
Riverbank Arena, Olympic Park
Distance 24 miles, Attendance (only 15% of what it could have been)
There’s an atmosphere in the Olympic Park I wish everyone could experience. Forget the hoopla on the media outlets and the crowds gathered to form a flag-waving back drop to the World heroes; it’s the aura I’m talking about. Centred to the east, there’s lightness in the London air – tinged with real optimism and enthusiasm – which reaches out in all directions. It’s hard to explain but entering the park I feel it and the mornings are the best (before the queues build up outside merchandise shops and the hideous burger place). Granted it’s a little unnerving for your average Londoner but like a gasp of fresh air, or hearing Bowie’s Sound and Vision for the first time, it’s intoxicating.
The day before I’d shared the experience with my son; this day accompanied by a friend was to be my day. A Paralympics and FA Vase double. Outside the tube was packed. Sightseers and workers were on board, but the majority were heading for Stratford (no, Locog, West Ham is not the best, or fastest, place to alight). “That’s a pretty impressive piece of equipment. What is it?”  came a plummy voice to my right. I turned – like many others – to see a dishevelled and hirsute young man with a camera strapped to his forehead explaining the process of social experiments and five-second-stop-frame-photography to a well heeled audience. Despite my amusement of the repeated shots being taken of the forehead of the same curious man in his finest casually striped Austin Reed button down, the mutually amicable scene was so typical of the last few weeks.
Inside the park was much busier and merrier too but, sadly inside The Riverbank Arena it was at best sparsely populated. I’m sure Lord Coe and his cronies will have a good explanation but over the next three and a half hours it hardly improved. Given the determination and ability of the athletes, and the fact that this morning’s session contained the World Champions and the previous Olympic medal winners, the sport clearly deserved a bigger interest.
Paralympics 7-a-sde explained (sort of):- Pitch 75×55 metres, goals 5x2m. Two teams of seven players, containing a variety of C5, C6, C7 and C8 athletes (with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders). Two halves of thirty minutes, separated by a fifteen minute interval. No offside, but free-kicks, throw-ins, corners, and goal kicks all occur as usual. All throw-ins are rolled one-handed. And most importantly, as with all football, the team with the most goals win.
Within thirty seconds it was clear every one of the players was better than me. It wasn’t like the blind 5-a-side football where I stared in awe at their ability, this time I was wondering why some of these athletes were not playing at Semi-Pro levels. They really were that good.

In the first game Russia tore Argentina apart, so much so that the mainly British crowd were applauding any attempt by the South Americans (let’s not compare that with the legacy of the hand-of-god). Far from being the first chance the first goal came on eight minutes as Kuligin smashed a free-kick into the top left corner. On twenty minutes the Russians were two up. A fierce shot was spilled by the Argentinian keeper but Murvanadze was on hand to tap in the loose ball. Moments later Larionov split the defence with a stunning pass but Ramonov couldn’t hit the target. With the half running out Murvanadze slotted home from a one-on-one with the keeper. The 3-0 score line seemed to flatter Argentina but then the second period would bring more goals. Ramonov struck first from distance, and then Kuvaev tapped in at the far post. Kuligin got his brace and Larionov deservedly got on the score sheet too, and finally Kuvaev heading in the eighth.

I still hadn’t seen ten goals in a game and I still couldn’t believe only eight countries were taking part but, we’d enjoyed some great football, with great passing, some bizarre support for the underdog (26 years and counting), good fouls, premier league bashing, and middle class parents’ embarrassing their offspring by singing along to Blur’s Song 2 each time a goal was scored. In the interval I made a mental note to do likewise when ours are older.

After a break, the next teams warmed up and orange people started to fill seats. The Netherlands looked very promising but Iran were former medal winners and the teams were far more evenly matched than the first game. Leaving for final instructions the 3G pitch was drenched and then it was game on.

Iran opened the scoring when Mehri rifled home a free kick following handball outside the area. Though he’d been beaten the busy keeper, Adelaars, would prove to be the pick of the Dutch players during the game. His defence resorted to some uncustomary hoofing but then the Iranian rolling about later on would prove both teams were capable of some unsightly acts. Akbari drove in the second from distance and just before the interval he set up Karimizadeh for the third, before his team did their best to run down the clock. In the stands we were doing our best to run down the (still) hideous London 2012 logo.  For the life of me, when “legacy” is the buzz word, why design students weren’t invited to compete for this I will never know.
The final thirty minutes was somewhat a stalemate. Clearly both teams had received their instructions but the result was cancelling out most of the good play. The lack of goals did afford us time to wonder – with neither keeper taking goal kicks – which of the C5-8 challenges were best for which positions. For twenty minutes only Adelaars (again) did himself proud and held off the Iranian attack until his own forwards could win a soft penalty which Straatman put away. Soon Iran reacted and struck the post through Gholamhosseinpour. Leading to some shoddy chanting behind us, Straatman had another fine attempt before Peter Kooij, pronounced Peter Kay, was bought on (you can imagine the comments). Ansari finally put then game to rest prior to performing some corner flag nonsense. It wasn’t the best half but still very enjoyable football nonetheless.
Two months ago scare mongers, doom merchants and naysayers, had tortured my ears with tales of woe. Some were opportunists seeking political gain, some have genuinely lost out, but most should have known better. The Olympics and Paralympics will not have been perfect for everyone but, obviously we’ve had a bloody good try. The resulting spectacle has been superb and a joy for all those fortunate enough to see it… For the first time in my life I’ve seen the London spirit my Grandparents told me of, and if anyone (who lived though the 80s) was still in doubt, rest assured OUR flag has truly become OURS again.

On Saturday we’ll be fortunate enough to take the children to the Olympic Park one final time. Sadly the games probably won’t happen again – on our doorsteps, in our lifetimes – so for now, we’re going to enjoy the games, the atmosphere, the optimism and the enthusiasm. I wouldn’t have missed sharing this with them for all the world.

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