Britain eyes return to the gold standard
With neither the holders Argentina nor the United States qualifying, Stuart Pearce's 'multinational' squad will find itself among the favourites for the title along with Spain and Brazil
If having Great Britain's squad reduced to a mere 80 players did not bring the Olympic football tournament into clearer focus, then two events taking place on successive days this week should do so. At Coventry City's Ricoh Arena tomorrow, Senegal play Oman in the final qualifier for the men's competition, which is being used as an official test event; and the following day the draw will be made for the men's and women's tournaments, enabling those who have a ticket to any of this summer's group matches to work out who they will actually be seeing.
The teams contesting tomorrow's game may not be the most glamorous, but to listen to Wigan Athletic's Omani goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi talking about the importance of the occasion to his country is to understand something of the patriotic fervour that Britons have not felt for the tournament in many years. Al-Habsi, 30, is hoping to be one of the three over-23 players allowed this summer if Oman leap the final hurdle. Last Monday night their entire squad was in London to see him perform heroically in Wigan's victory over Arsenal and tomorrow he will return the compliment at Coventry.
As he says, "Football is becoming bigger and bigger in Oman," not least because of Al-Habsi's presence as the first of the country's representatives to reach the Premier League. He was recommended by the oldest man to have played in it, John Burridge, the hyperactive and much travelled goalkeeper who was working as a coach in Oman. Problems with a work permit meant it was necessary to play in Norway for a while before joining Bolton Wanderers and then moving to Wigan, where he was voted last season's player of the year.
"When you play in the Premier League, everyone knows who you are," he said. "People ask where Al-Habsi is from and so people hear of Oman. The crowds there are crazy about football and to be in the Olympics would be a dream for the country, the players and for everyone."
They have a highly experienced coach in Paul Le Guen, formerly of Rangers and Lyon, who is in charge of both the Olympic and World Cup teams, inspiring the latter to victory over Australia in November and losing only two of his 10 games so far. "He is brilliant," Al-Habsi says, "and we have a really good relationship with him. Of course I would love to play in the Olympics but it is early to talk about it. Let us go through and we can talk about it after."
It will not be easy against Senegal, who could also field some impressive over-age players themselves, like Newcastle's prolific new pairing of Demba Ba and Papisse Cissé plus Mohamed Diamé, a Wigan club-mate who will be equally keen for his own country to make it through.
The surprise in the men's event is that neither the United States nor the holders Argentina are among the 24 qualifiers. Favourites for what is essentially an Under-23 event (with three older players allowed) will therefore include Spain, winners of the European Under-21 Championship last year; Brazil whose "long" squad includes Dani Alves, Hulk and Ronaldinho; and logically Great Britain, with home advantage and a large field to choose from. Apart from hostility from the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland associations, Stuart Pearce's greatest problem as manager would appear to be persuading clubs to release players for a tournament in which the final takes place the day before the Community Shield, four days before international friendlies and a week before the Premier League and Football League seasons begin.
Having been involved for some years with under-aged teams, Pearce is well aware of the difficulties but hopes that managers will take a more benevolent view than his old adversary Arsène Wenger who has already ruled out one key player, Arsenal's midfielder Jack Wilshere.
The British team have not faced such problems before, since no professional British players have ever been included in the Games – once amateurism was officially abolished in the early 1970s, this year's hosts stopped competing. Britain won the 1908 and 1912 gold medal and in 1948 they finished fourth, but last qualified in 1960 and played their final qualifying match in 1971, an ignominious 5-0 defeat by Bulgaria.
For two decades until 1984, the shamateurs of Eastern Europe dominated, with Hungary's dazzling side, who should have won the 1954 World Cup, winning the 1952 Olympic gold. More recently African and South American countries have generally made a strong showing, Nigeria and Cameroon winning in 1996 and 2000. In the subsequent two Games, the gold has gone to Argentina with a young Carlos Tevez finishing as top scorer eight years ago and Lionel Messi in the 2008 side after Barcelona reluctantly agreed to release him.
Once again football will be the most widespread sport of all, following the Olympic tradition of playing many games outside the host city. In the London Games of 1948, the 11 venues included Brighton's Goldstone Ground and Portsmouth's Fratton Park as well as amateur grounds at Ilford, Dulwich Hamlet and Walthamstow Avenue, but this time they take place in Scotland (Hampden Park) and Wales (Millennium Stadium) as well as Newcastle, Coventry and Manchester (Old Trafford).
The other oddity about the tournament is that it starts two days before the opening ceremony. All those celebrations last week of 100 days before the Games start ignored the fact that it was in fact 98 days until the first event, a match featuring Hope Powell's Great Britain women at Cardiff on Wednesday 25 July. There are six women's games that day and eight in the men's tournament the next day, when Pearce's team play at Old Trafford.
The women have it slightly easier than the men in that there are only 12 competing sides divided into three groups, so that third-placed teams in two of them will go through to the quarter-finals. England's women are ranked ninth in the world, which gives an idea of Britain's standing; the traditionally strong United States are ranked No 1, but Japan are the world champions and Brazil have the best female player in the world in Mata. One of the few problems Pearce will not face is losing a player through pregnancy, as has happened with Powell's captain, the highly regarded Faye White of Arsenal.
The London organising expect increased demand for the 1.7 million tickets once the draw is made. The next batch is due to be released early in May but unsold tickets should be available on the day for matches not sold out beforehand. The huge number of tickets and geographical spread of matches therefore make football by far the best bet for anyone determined to say in future years "I was there".
Beckham v Giggs: Who would you pick?
Ryan Giggs or David Beckham? Gareth Bale or Craig Bellamy? As he reduced his long, long list of 191 original invitees for Great Britain's Olympic squad to a shorter long list of 80 last week, Stuart Pearce must have felt like the ultimate fantasy football selector.
The fun may not last. Sir Alex Ferguson will not be the last manager to complain about losing players so close to the start of next season, and his revelation that Ryan Giggs is one of 10 Manchester United players under consideration raises another question: how strong will individual players be in daring to oppose clubs who do not want them taking part?
Giggs has previously indicated that he is keen to play but, as an over-age player, United are not obliged to release him. Having regularly missed out on the opportunity to play in a World Cup, however, Giggs could scarcely be a more deserving case for a shot at an Olympic medal.
And if that means Beckham – who has, after all, been touted as the Flag Bearer for the whole of Team GB no less – has to miss out on an Olympic team place after so many days in the sun, then so be it.
Busby's first set of babes
The last time Great Britain had a team in a London Olympics, in 1948, the amateur side reached the semi-finals where they lost 3-1 to Yugoslavia and then lost 5-3 to Denmark in the play-off for third and fourth place. The squad set-up included two men who later achieved success in the European Cup – coach Matt Busby, with Manchester United in 1968, and Queens Park's Ronnie Simpson, who in 1967 was in goal as Celtic beat Internazionale 2-1 in Lisbon.
Forty years earlier, Great Britain had won gold in London, beating Denmark 2-0 in the final with goals from Vivian Woodward and Frederick Chapman. Woodward was a prolific striker for Spurs and Chelsea between 1900-15. Also in the team was Harold Hardman, who went on to be Manchester United chairman at the time of the Munich air crash, which Busby survived. When Britain won gold again in 1912, Woodward was still in the squad.
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