A former All White and professional footballer with Wellington Phoenix, the PFA’s Legal Counsel Jacob Spoonley recounts his experience at the Olympics with New Zealand’s national team, taking on a star-studded Brazilian team which included the likes of Ronaldinho on the pitch, and the memorable experiences within the Olympic Village off it.

I never gravitated towards the Olympics as a goal for my football career. Coming from a family with an athletics background though, it was a spectacle that I always looked forward to watching as a youngster. Hearing the anthem and seeing a silver fern on the podium never ceased to be a surreal moment as a kid – how could a Kiwi overcome the vast resources and competition of larger countries? 

We had a turbulent time of qualifying and then being confirmed as part of the New Zealand Olympic team to travel to Beijing. 

A month before qualifiers we didn’t have a coach. However, Stu Jacobs and Jonathan Gould stepped up and did a brilliant job of galvanising a team that had received only nominal investment. After qualifying in the furnace of Fiji (despite what many think, it isn’t easy), we had to wait for two months to be confirmed by the NZOC. 

Being the first men’s football team to qualify from New Zealand, the traditional decisionmakers had concerns about the merits of our qualification. Finally a media announcement was made that we were going. Dan Ellensohn and I heard the good news on the radio just as we were pulling up to training. I think we managed to get the car onto the field for a victory lap.

The Olympic Village is an incredible place, it doesn’t have an equivalent. You share the gym with weightlifters, archers and pole-vaulters, and the food hall with basketballers, tennis players and equestrians. One day we walked passed Roger Federer on his way to training. For reasons that I don’t completely understand, the world seems to love Kiwis and Aussies. We had people from all sorts of countries talking to us about New Zealand, which was nice – even if it was about hobbits. 

We were the first Kiwi team in the village and received a traditional Māori pōwhiri and haka from the staff to welcome us. Fortunately, this meant that we were involved in the subsequent welcomes before leaving for Shenyang. At 4am, only a few days later, we were up to greet the Football Ferns. 

As the pūtātara (conch shell) and our haka cut through the morning, we were caught off guard by a response haka from the Ferns, led by NZPFA board member Kristy Hill. From that point the intensity ramped up. Seeing a haka is impressive but being involved in one with your mates with other Olympians responding in kind in the Olympic Village is in its own stratosphere. 

Competing at the Olympics was incredible for me as an athlete, but that experience in the village was special for me as a Kiwi.

From a competitive perspective, the Olympics was a bit bittersweet. Of course, it was an honour to be there representing your country with your mates, but it was crushing to come close against China and Belgium. We were three minutes from upsetting China at home to open the Games. Between their equaliser and the final whistle, the noise of the crowd was overwhelming. I feel for this generation who are competing in such sterile atmospheres.

In our last game, we went 1-0 down to Belgium. That was the dawn of their golden generation. It would have made for a great yarn to get a draw or win against the likes of Kompany, Fellaini, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Dembele, Martens, Mirallas and (Football Manager wunderkind) Anthony Vanden Borre.

 Our second match was a 5-0 demolishing by Brazil. We went down 1-0 after 90 seconds. At that point, I realised that we were in for a long afternoon.

The worst was at the 60-minute mark when Thiago Silva calmy controlled one of our corners and passed to Marcelo in the Brazilian 18-yard box. He then clipped it in Ronaldinho on halfway. Holding off two defenders, Ronaldinho chested the ball up and back heeled a volley over our right back, who then saw his ten-yard head-start evaporate to Marcelo. His first time cross found Pato perfectly, with the ball ending up in the net. Mercifully, the Brazilian forward was fractionally offside. Regardless, in the space of 10 seconds and four passes they had covered the length of the field and scored. It was the first time I felt helpless on a football field.

As a prequel to all of that, I had been on-on-one with Ronaldinho from 12 yards. All of the YouTube research that I had done indicated that he would go to his left, my right. This turned out to be accurate. Unfortunately, he was simply too good. The ball was hit with so much power, accuracy and confidence that I could only get a finger on it. It would’ve made for a great story for the grandkids though.

For a footballer, it is a unique experience. You mix with athletes from other sports and cultures and get a brief insight into the way that they approach their disciplines. You may not appreciate what you’ve experienced until much later so you try to soak it all at the time. My only piece of advice to the players in Tokyo this year is to enjoy it while you are in it and, after historic wins for the Olywhites and the Olyroos, it looks like they might be able to enjoy it for a while yet.