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Olympic Football

Boyish enthusiasm in Stuart Pearce's Team GB side before kick-off with Brazil


Jason Steele is, he tells us, under orders from his dad. "He's told me to get as much memorabilia as possible," says the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, sat behind a place card which reads 'Jason Steele Olympic Athlete.' "Aye, and that's going as well!"

There is an understandable desire to gauge where Olympic football in this country will register amongst a sporting public looking at a third successive football tournament in two months, the end of the Premier League, the European Championship and now this. Perhaps its best measure comes in the boyish delight of those taking part.

Stuart Pearce, the Team GB coach – "Was I stagestruck in the village? No, I'm a dour bugger. I don't get stage-struck" – spoke about a unique spirit amongst his squad, something he has never encountered in his three campaigns in European Championships and World Cups as a player with England, or during his time as manager of the Under-21 side.

"Going into the Olympic village last Monday took their breath away," he said. "The size of it all hit home to the staff and the players. Even though it was quiet because it was the first day, it showed what this encompasses.

"We know there's something special. When I've spoken to the players individually and said, 'How are you feeling about it?' they say they find it different to when they're with the England squad. There's just something special about it, that probably we can't put into words.

"There's something of a magnitude which is just incredible, that we're involved in. The advice to all the players is, 'Look we're in it, let's give it our best and try and win the tournament.' That's what we'll prepare to do but you must enjoy it, too. I probably haven't got the right vocabulary to put it into words, but there's something just slightly special about this one. Even different to the England squads I've been in, the Under-21s, whatever. It's just slightly different in some way, shape or form."

Perhaps what stands out most is the disbelief that these people are involved in the Olympics, and the lack of crushing expectation. Football used to be like this. Old Trafford is expected to be full next Thursday, when the campaign starts, against Senegal.

"When it was announced we were going to have a team in the Olympics, I don't think people were particularly sure what the magnitude of it all would be," added Pearce. "But we've got three group games that are pretty much sold out. I can only draw on my experience of tournament football. I played in my first tournament at the World Cup in 1990 and a quarter of a million people met us at Luton Airport even though we'd been beaten in the semi-final. That generated huge excitement within the country. Then at Euro 96, it was football in an environment like I'd never known it. If these players get a taste in this tournament of what I experienced in 1996, they will be the richer for it, that's for sure. It blew me away and blew my family away. It was an experience that no one in that squad will forget."

Steele, at least, has been forewarned: "We're in hotels the majority of the time, we travel around and play games, so to go into that sort of environment is a big culture shock because you're no longer just yourself as a group of 18, you're now 500-odd athletes all part of a team. To experience that was brilliant, and I think we're going back there as well. It'll probably be even busier when we go back and it'll be something else.

"To be honest, I don't really think it'll sink in properly until it's all over. In years to come I'm sure I'll cherish this forever. I'm forever being reminded by my dad to keep little things because I'll look back in years to come with my children and grandchildren and it'll be something to hold on to."

Preparation will intensify tonight, when Team GB face the much-fancied Brazilians at the Riverside Stadium. Daniel Sturridge, who has been suffering from viral meningitis, should play after impressing in training. A decision on his participation in the Games will follow the match.

Preceding Team GB tomorrow will be Team GB women, who face Sweden on the same ground, at four o'clock. The Olympics are offering a real opportunity to the women's game, as head coach Hope Powell admitted.

"We want to set a long-lasting legacy," she said. "We want to show that women's football is a good product. We want it valued as a sport in its own right. This gives us a platform to showcase the sport.

"It will give us a benchmark as to where we are in the squad. Preparations are going very well. The girls have trained very well and hard. Sweden are highly ranked, World Cup winners, so this will determine how much more we need to do."

Powell's message mirrored that of Pearce. "You're an Olympian first and a footballer second," she added. "It's about the kitting-out experience, it's about going to the village, it's not just about football. It's about Team GB, I like it. It's been a good experience. The whole thing has been something very special. It will last in my memory a very long time and we're embracing every moment."

That was a common theme yesterday.

Brazilians to watch

Leandro Damiao da Silva dos Santos

Emerging from the shadow of the Hulk is not easy, just ask David Banner. That is the task for Leandro Damiao for the rest of the Olympics. What the 22-year-old clearly does have is the character to try. Only through moving to a forward role did his star begin to shine, and now, along with his nine caps for the full Brazil side, he has scored 24 times for his club side Internacional.


Neymar is the European Cup in the form of a player, 'another' Holy Grail that Roman Abramovich has chased for years. As yet, unlike the trophy, the 20-year-old has escaped the Chelsea owner's grasp. No wonder he wants him, Neymar has flair and scores for fun, 42 in 88 for his club side Santos, nine in 18 for the full Brazil team.