If Britain's fans could be as enthusiastic about Olympic football as their players, we might be on to something
There are precious few corners of the sporting world that remain immune to the Olympic Games, which can generally be relied on to act as a kind of universal magic dust, adding lustre, lending gravitas, conjuring intrigue. There are exceptions to every rule, however. On which note: welcome back Team GB, formerly known as the Great Britain Olympic football team, and even now for many an enduring sliver of Olympic kryptonite.
Poor old Team GB. Has there ever been a less keenly cherished national team than Stuart Pearce's collection of 13 Englishmen, five Welshmen and the absent friends of Scotland and Northern Ireland? As Pearce and his captain Ryan Giggs appeared in Stratford on Monday for a progress report on their foray into British footballing identity, it was striking that here was a football team girdled with Premier League stars and about to compete in a global competition that still feels the need to sell itself, to insist on its own sporting legitimacy.
"The expectation will just get bigger and bigger the closer we get to the game," Giggs said, still not quite able to launch himself into the traditional pre-tournament war-cry. "Hopefully the fans can get behind us. We are the home team. I hope the fans come out and support us, I'm sure they will."
Pearce declared his team injury-free – Daniel Sturridge has recovered from meningitis and his fitness will be assessed this week – and stated that he is sending his team out to win a home gold medal. But it was perhaps Craig Bellamy who expressed best the peculiar atmosphere around British Olympic football, the sense of a ceremonial presence as much as an actual team, describing his experience to date with genuine awe but also with a turn of phrase that borrowed slightly from the journey-of-self-discovery vocabulary of a star-making TV boot camp: "It's just been such a great experience so far. It's been immense. We've had a great week, training's been brilliant and all the boys have really got on. It's been unbelievable."
The reasons for the historical sense of unease are clear enough. There are those who object to the presence of professional football at the Olympics in the first place – most notably the hurdler Dai Greene – arguing that Olympic competition should always be the pinnacle of those sports involved, not a kind of consolation prize for the overlooked or the Welsh.
Mainly, though, it is the issue of mingled identities that has dogged British Olympic football through its distantly grand history. Assorted English amateur selections won gold at the Games of 1900, 1908 and 1912, after which a dispute over the inclusion of professionals curtailed Olympic involvement until 1936. Post-war, amateur home nations teams competed at every Games until 1972, after which Britain as an Olympic footballing nation simply ceased to exist, stymied by further wrangles over amateurism and muddled by misgivings among the home nations over their enduring status within Fifa.
And so after 40 years of Olympic hurt Team GB rises once again: cobwebbed, bleary-eyed but creaking back the lid of its coffin to embrace the cajoling splendour of a home Games. And while it is an unfashionable cause, there are a number of good reasons to believe that Olympic football could yet turn out to be one of the surprise star turns of these Summer Games.
Certainly past Olympics have been a showcase for some wonderful players and memorable teams. Most nobly in recent times the 1996 Atlanta Games brought together a generational abundance of talent. Argentina fielded Javier Zanetti, Claudio López, Diego Simeone, Hernán Crespo and Ariel Ortega. Italy included Gianluigi Buffon, Christina Panucci, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro. Brazil brought with them Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Juninho.
Gold, though, was reserved for a fine Nigerian team containing Taribo West, Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha, to date the finest tournament achievement of any African nation.
Similarly the next three weeks will offer the chance to see players of pedigree in a national shirt, from Ismail Matar – once described as the Emirati Wayne Rooney – to Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez of Uruguay, Thiago Silva and Hulk of Brazil and Spain's Juan Mata, who is having a very nice summer.
In Pearce's squad Steven Caulker and Tom Cleverley are both prospective England World Cup players, while the opportunity to see Giggs and Bellamy in an international tournament has its own fascination. Beneath which that chemistry of diverse but shared nationality lurks. It is a shame the Scots and Northern Irish are unrepresented as there is already a club tradition of great British teams, through Liverpool of the 1980s and Manchester United of the early Premier League years.
The British women's team will effectively set the Games under way with their opening match against New Zealand. And hearing the assembled Team GB players talk with enthusiasm about the fascinations of the Olympic village and which fellow Olympians they would most like to meet (Bellamy: Bolt; Giggs: Federer; Jack Cork: Phelps), the notion that Team GB might not just hang together at the seams but gain some momentum as a concept seemed suddenly plausible. "I hope at future Olympics there will be another Great Britain team," Giggs said. "For me personally it's a chance I couldn't turn down, the chance of playing in the biggest sporting event in the world." Read More
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