Droplets of rain seeped through the roof onto my laptop in the familiar surroundings of Craven Cottage. Just for a brief moment, I could have been watching an English league match. The pitch in front of me was water-sodden, the journalist sitting next to me had a dulcet cockney accent and I could barely feel my feet, given the cold winds blowing through the Johnny Haynes Stand. But this was where the similarities ended, on a very different night of football action in the capital.
As I ventured to west London for Wednesday’s international between Ghana and Mexico, Brazil and Sweden fans were travelling in the opposite direction on the Piccadilly Line, bound for their game at the Emirates Stadium. Amidst the rush hour throng of suits, were face-painted groups representing the four nations. Flags were being waved, whistles blown and various chants were livening up the usually sombre experience of travelling by London Underground. Many supporters were ex-pats revelling in a rare opportunity to watch their native country play live for the first time, adding to the excitement.
That was the case for a Mexican couple I spoke to, who had closed their restaurant in London for the night to see their beloved ‘El Tri’. There was a local school with 50 of its students, many of Ghanaian descent, savouring the build up to the big game. A group of fans had travelled all the way from Mexico City for the match, sporting green action hero masks. No doubt similar pilgrimages had been made from Guadalajara, Monterrey, Cancun, Accra and Kumasi too. For the English neutrals, this was a chance to watch the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Nery Castillo playing outside of the Premiership. And with ticket prices at Craven Cottages ranging between £10-20, it was a much cheaper way to do so.
Disappointingly the ground was, at best, half full. Both goal ends had whole blocks of unsold tickets. That did nothing to spoil an electric atmosphere though, far greater that you would experience for most sold out Premiership matches at the same venue. Ghana’s fans jumped in unison for large spells of the game, beat together inflatable tubes and made hilarious swimming gestures when they thought an opposition player had dived. The Mexicans were equally as loud and colourful, with their chant of ‘MEC-E-CO’ echoing around the ground for most of the 90 minutes.
The first half was played at decent pace, but neither side managed to fashion more than a handful of noteworthy incidents. The closest the deadlock game to being broken was actually in stoppage time at the end of 45 minutes, when Manchester City’s Nery Castillo took the ball around Birmingham City’s goalkeeper Richard Kingson, only to see Eric Addo block his shot on the line. The Ghanaian media were critical of their strikers Manuel Agogo and Haminu Draman in the post match press conference and they may have had a point. The Black Stars’ attacks often broke down as the ball was played to their frontline, with Agogo guilty of fluffing a number of shots in the opening passage of play.
It was a mixed night for Chelsea’s Michael Essien. He gave Ghana the lead on 55 minutes, carrying the ball the edge of the Mexican’s penalty area, before arrowing a powerful strike into bottom right corner of Oswaldo Sanchez’ net. It was the playmakers’ eighth goal in 38 appearances for his country. But only 22 minutes later Essien was involved in a mix up with Ghana’s substitute Patrick Antwi, under hitting a back-pass to the 20-year old goalkeeper. Antwi hit his clearance at the legs of Carlos Salcido, who was presented with an open goal to slot in Mexico’s equaliser.
Five minutes from time, Mexico completed their comeback, when English referee Rob Styles awarded them with a penalty. Eric Addo tripped sub Adolfo Bautista inside the six-yard box and Stuttgart midfielder Pavel Pardo converted the resulting spot kick. Mexico’s victory prompted wild celebrations and for under-pressure boss Hugo Sanchez, the win should have at least cemented his position for another game. In contrast, Ghana were fuming. Players and manager were incensed by the performance of referee Rob Styles and with Claude Le Roy claiming ‘he (Styles) had something against us’.
It was disappointing not to see the talented young Barcelona striker Giovanni Dos Santos, a reported summer target for Manchester City, in action due to injury. There were a number of stand out individuals elsewhere however, with Laryea Kingston of Hearts looking particularly affective on the right of Ghana’s midfield. The tricky Mexican left-winger Andres Guardado also stood out, with a fine display of dribbling and crossing. The 21-year-old Deportivo La Coruna player should have an extremely bright future ahead of him if this performance is anything to go on.
At the Emirates Stadium, a crowd in excess of 60,000 turned out to see the Brazil-Sweden clash. The game, which was designed to revive the memory of the 1958 World Cup Final between the two sides, never quite lived up to the 5-2 victory for Brazil at the Stockholm Rasunda Stadium 50 years ago. In their fifth London appearance in two years, the Samba Boys fielded a largely second-string eleven but still secured victory. The 18-year-old AC Milan striker Alexandre Pato blocked a clearance from Sweden keeper Rami Shaaban and calmly looped it over his head on 72 minutes, to secure a 1-0 victory. The goal added to Pato’s reputation as one of the promising youngsters in world football.
The London internationals are to here to stay, with Ireland and Colombia the next teams to play in the capital in May. For the neutrals, ex-pats and general lovers of football, having of some of the best players from around the world play on their doorstep is a luxury fans are already becoming blissfully accustomed to.