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St James' Park gets a fresh outlook
ON any given match day, St James’ Park is awash with black and white, the terraces packed with passionate locals and the sound of the Blaydon Races can be heard echoing around the stadium.
However, yesterday, the familiar black and white atmosphere was transformed into a colourful carnival as the 2012 London Olympic Games arrived in the North-East.
For the next fortnight the home of Newcastle United will play host to six Olympic matches and, in doing so, has undergone significant cosmetic changes both internally and externally.
A sea of colour has momentarily replaced the usual black and white – bar the odd Magpies’ strip – while excited fans from all over the world packed out the terraces of the famous Leazes and Gallowgate Ends for the opening two games.
Gone are the usual Sports Direct advertising hoardings that can be found dotted around the ground, covered by official Olympic logos.
And then there’s the famous Olympic rings, which have been hung at either end of the stadium along with the colourful array of participating nations’ flags.
And even the huge queues of fans that had walked up on the day to buy tickets failed to dampen the spirits of people that just wanted to be involved in the party.
Cosmetically, the oldest football ground in the North- East may have been transformed, but the historically passionate atmosphere was still evident to feel and see.
There may have been concerns over the lack of ticket sales for Olympic football, but the 15,000 or so spectators for the first game made it feel like the place was packed to the rafters.
Mexico and South Korea kicked off proceedings in the afternoon.
Everyone stood as the national anthems were played and as the referee started proceedings a wave of excitement swept round as anticipation reached fever pitch.
Unlike at the usual Premier League fixtures that grace the turf, gone was the segregation of fans and instead supporters were allowed to enjoy the arrival of the Games and their teams in unison.
The South Koreans donned flags on their faces and clothes, while a plethora of Mexican sombreros could be found – even if they seemed more appropriate for keeping the rain off.
On the field, both sides came out intent of playing attacking football with Mexico going close through Miguel Ponce. A neat interchange between Marco Fabian and Oribe Peralta teed up the midfielder, but his curling effort sailed inches wide of the post.
Half-time came with the deadlock intact, but the lack of goals did not deter the carnival in the stands. The excitement built around the ground with both sets of fans willing the ball towards goal.
Despite their early advances, Mexico came under considerable pressure in the second perid, but that did not stop the most inevitable sight of the afternoon occurring when a Mexican wave broke out around the stadium.
Korea piled forward and at every advance the anticipation among their fans went up a notch as Koo Jacheol rattled the crossbar.
Jose Corona pulled off a good save to deny Ki Sungyueng before Koo went close again only to see his glancing header go wide.
Sunderland’s Ji Dongwon was brought on with three minutes remaining, but he couldn’t find a winner for his side as Mexico almost nicked it when Raul Jiminez hit the post.
The opening game might have gone by without a big talking point, but as Switzerland and Gabon got the second game of the day underway, it took less than four minutes for the first Olympic goal at St James’ Park.
Swiss forward Innocent Emeghara was brought down in the box and despite being ordered to retake his spot kick after putting it away, Admir Mehmedi made no mistake with his second attempt to finally break the deadlock on Tyneside .
With Gabon enjoying their first taste of Olympic football, the crowd might have expected the Swiss to go on and win the game comfortably, but just as half-time approached the African side were back in the game and the small pocket of fans in the ground celebrated when Alexander Ndoumbou set up Pierre Aubameyang for the equaliser.
Switzerland were reduced to ten men when Oliver Buff was dismissed for a second booking in the 78th minute, but the scores stayed the same to see the opening matches at St James’ Park both end in draws.