Olympic football is sent to Coventry. But in a good way

Coventry’s Ricoh Arena was given the 2012 treatment this week, staging first Olympic football qualifying match on British soil for 41 years. PHILIP BARKER offers this take on how the stadium is gearing up for Games time

Stuart Pearce: on duty at Coventry in his role as coach for Great Britain

For many reporters, the “City of Coventry Stadium”, as it will be known at Games-time, with sponsors’ names duly removed, will be the first assignment of the London Olympics. There’s a women’s football double-header on the first day of competition, which comes two days before the Opening Ceremony at Stratford. In all, Coventry will stage a dozen games, including the bronze medal match in the women’s competition.

This week, the stadium staged the match in which Senegal qualified for the final place in the men’s   tournament. No one there was in any doubt that the ground could handle a matchday crowd but for this test event, organisers laid on a fleet of buses to transport spectators and media.

The Ricoh is a 20-minute bus ride from the centre of town, potentially more at rush hour, so not perhaps the easiest venue to get to.

There seemed to be plenty of vehicles available. Once at the stadium, journalists were faced with a short walk to the other side to pick up accreditation.

This ought not be an issue during the Games. There were plenty of stewards and also an army of enthusiastic purple-clad volunteers ready to help. A crowd of a little more than 11,000 gave the ground a cracking atmosphere in Senegal’s convincing 2-0 win over Oman in the first Olympic qualifying match played on British soil for 41 years.

The Great Britain men’s football coach Stuart Pearce was in the stands. If he was there to run the rule over potential opponents, he must surely have been impressed by a polished performance by the Africans, who gave every indication that they will be a real threat at the Games this summer. Remember what Senegal did to France in the World Cup in 2002.

According to local reporters, it was better than it had been at the weekend. Coventry lost to Doncaster and were condemned to their first stint in the third tier of English football since the days of Jimmy Hill. Faced with two neutral teams, the organisers handed out flags of both nations, you paid your money and took your choice. Strangely, however, there were no match programmes.

The Olympic organisers had provided programmes for test events in beach volleyball, BMX and track cycling, but for a sport which boasts collectors like no other, there was nothing. Maybe the budget for them went on that sandcastle down at Weymouth? At least team lists were readily available for media covering the event.The press box, if not quite full, was respectably populated.

The Lions of Teranga roar at the Ricoh Arena after qualifying for the London Olympics

There were the usual Olympic beat reporters from Britain and colleagues from overseas including a team from TV Globo in Brazil who have set up a base in Stratford to cover the Games. London 2012 sports supremo David Luckes claimed that “the Olympic football tournament will come of age in London”, but he still has tickets to sell.

It could be argued that football’s Olympic breakthrough came in 1984, when they packed out the vast stadiums in California for “soccer”.

The time difference in the Arabian Gulf made it a challenging deadline for reporters from Oman, but coverage this week had already reached fever pitch, and in Senegal there are no prizes for guessing what story was on the front page.


Thu May 10: SJA Ladbrokes Lunch with former England cricket captain Alec Stewart. Click here for booking details.