The stage was set, the house was packed, the crowd was sympathetic and Team GB – with precocious young Welshman Aaron Ramsey at the center of the maelstrom – called for the shot and it fell short.
South Korea suffered a freak injury in the 6th minute when Joe Allen brought down Chang-Soo Kim and the Korean defender landed awkwardly on his arm and appeared to snap his wrist. The South Korean manager Hong Myung-bo put on Baek Sung-dong in his place and it would be the sub who gave away the first penalty.
Still, the South Korean’s had chances early in the first half and challenged Team GB’s defense with a surprising ease from distance. Arsenal’s Ju-Young Park had the best chance early on as his curling shot from the top of the D was just beaten away by Team GB’s Jack Butland. But it would be Sunderland striker Ji Dong-won whose venomous strike moments later would open the accounts.
Ji collected the ball on the left and seemingly covered both by defender and by having something of a tight angle Ji unleashed a cannonball which sailed past Butland and into the side netting. On replay the keeper looked in good position and sighted but he misjudged the speed of the ball and as he went to punch away it slipped through his fists and all he was left to do was turn and watch slack-jawed as the ball went into the corner.
The Brits came back, though, and nearly every good, bad, or indifferent move went through Arsenal’s Welshman Aaron Ramsey. Team Great Britain’s makeup was entirely English and Welsh with the three Welshmen the real stars of the group. Ryan Giggs at 38 years old and having won everything at club level imaginable was their leader. His partner in crime was the oft troubled Craig Bellamy who is appropriately nicknamed “Bellows”. And the young buck is central midfielder Aaron Ramsey whose deft touch, steely nerve, and glacial patience can be frustrating and brilliant in equal measure.
Ji’s goal seemed to energize Team GB and they fought back immediately with attacking move after attacking move. Ramsey was delightful here, sweeping passes into nooks and crannies of the Korean defense and seeing lanes open where there should be none. It was off this pressure that the Brits got the equalizer. The ball bumbled on Cardiff’s ugly pitch and Ryan Bertrand did well to side foot the strike and get it on target. Baek flew in to get a block but the ball struck an arm instead and the referee wasted no time awarding the penalty.
A match of Men’s Olympic Handbags spontaneously erupted as the South Koreans argued the penalty and of course Bellows was in the middle of the action — he is a hands, mouth, and foot type of player. The argument got even more heated when the Brits accused the Koreans of scuffing the penalty spot but the referee just took his time, awarded the yellow card, told everyone to get behind the line and handed the ball to Team GB’s designated penalty taker: Aaron Ramsey.
There’s no doubt that if Ryan Giggs had been on the pitch, he would be first choice but tightness in his hamstring kept him sidelined. And thus, in front of 72,000 Welsh and English supporters, all cheering him on, Aaron Ramsey placed the ball on the dot and took several steps back. The keeper could see it on Ramsey’s face. The crowd could sense it and the cameras all caught it. Ramsey broke out intoo a cold sweat and seemed to look around for a moment trying to spot the exit. You could almost see the thoughts running through his head: an Olympic medal was on the line here, glory for Wales and England in front of the home crowd was on the line, and personal glory of overcoming a year of criticism was on the line.
After what seemed an ice-age, Ramsey strode forward and struck the ball low and slightly to the left of the keeper. Jung Sung-Ryong read it perfectly but the ball went through his arms and rippled the back net. Perhaps the keeper should have done better, but Ramsey did hit the ball with pace.
Minutes later, the drama would repeat itself. This time a wonderful through ball by Bertrand played in Chelsea star Daniel Sturridge and he was brought down in the box. Again, the referee wasted no time awarding the penalty. And again, it was Ramsey who stood over the spot kick. It was a mirror penalty to the last; this time Ramsey looked more composed and struck the ball low and hard, this time to the right and again the keeper guessed correctly, but instead of Ramsey scoring, Jung blocked the goal.
For the next 80 minutes both teams probed but neither could break down the other’s resolute defending. South Korean and Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young had the best chance as he rose high above the towering English back line and powered home a header that just barely went over the bar. But other than a few chances, the match was largely a damp squib.
And if Ramsey shined in that first half, in the second he struggled. His glacial patience can turn into dwelling on the ball quickly. And when that happens, opposition midfielders are all too happy to swarm and take it from him. Team GB’s counter attacks often seemed to fall apart with Ramsey on the ball. Not that there weren’t moments that he pulled the strings but rather that they were few and far between.
It didn’t help that Team GB talisman and fan favorite Ryan Giggs was clearly unfit. Entered into the contest in the 80th minute to raucous cheers, the elder Welshman struggled to get much of the ball and when he did seemed to tenderly try to open the Korean defense rather than power through with one of his trademark runs.
The contest ended with the South Koreans happy for the penalties — not the kind of situation that suits British teams historically. Prior to the match we were assured Stuart Pierce had his teams working on penalties night and day. So cocksure he could only have said “we got this” out loud to drive the point home.
And of course it was Aaron Ramsey who stepped up to the plate first for Team GB. It had to be Ramsey. Ramsey who had shakily taken both penalties in the first half. Ramsey, upon whom so much of this team depended.
Ramsey nervously dropped the ball to his feet and trudged to the penalty spot. As the Welshman stood there, the South Korean keeper, Lee Bum-Young – who had come on as a sub for the keeper who saved Ramsey’s second – began a game of chicken. Walking first toward Aaron, arms spread wide in order to make himself look bigger than the goal. Then slowly backed toward his line all the while maintaining an icy stare. It was a face off between two prize-fighters. Except Lee was the only one making eye-contact: Ramsey kept glancing at the official, waiting for him to tell the keeper to get into his goal.
And after what seemed an eternity the ref blew the whistle, Ramsey composed himself a little, and with one swift motion powered the ball over the outstretched arms of Lee and into the top of the net. It was exactly the kind of penalty that marks Ramsey as an enigma.
Plenty of Arsenal supporters will tell you that they only want a player who will give his all for the club. This is why Frimpong is hailed by the Arsenal faithful. He’ll run through walls for Arsenal, they say. But the problem with Frimpong is that he doesn’t know which walls to run through, so he just runs randomly through all the walls like the Kool Aid man. With Ramsey, however, the Gunners have a player of uncommon valor. A player who will face up to any challenge and give it his best. He might be frustrating at times with his holdup play. He should certainly work on moving the ball more swiftly and on his passing range. But if Arsenal fans want a player who will give everything to the cause, Ramsey is their man. He amply demonstrated that last night at Cardiff.
In the end, the South Koreans made all of their penalties and it was Chelsea star Danny Sturridge who missed the final shot and sent Great Britain out of the medal hunt. As soon as Sturridge stepped up to take the 5th penalty there was a murmur both in the crowd and on twitter. We could all sense it; the flashy Sturridge was going to do something and miss the penalty.
And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Sturridge gave the keeper a stutter-step run up and when Lee refused to flinch, tamely put the ball right into the keepers hands. The South Koreans move on too the medal rounds where they now have two shots at a medal. The Brits were left dejected having fallen again at the final hurdle: penalties.