The sun setting across one of English football’s great industrial backdrops, “Chariots of Fire” playing across the public address system and Craig Bellamy putting a brave face on “God save the Queen”. They certainly all did their best to conjure up something Olympian, but now you see why Stuart Pearce has been so spiky about the Football Association not letting him get his hands on England’s elite for the Olympics.
In fairness, Pearce has had only two weeks to prepare this side, some of whom are only just back in training and many of whom are inexperienced, but his opposite number Mano Menzies’ powers of diplomacy were stretched when he was asked if Britain might be medal contenders.
“Some teams are more up to it than others,” Menzies said. “Team GB play a different style of football.”
Pearce will not be whipping the British nation into one of those frenzies which deluded us into imagining that Italy would be getting a hiding, less than a month ago. At times, you wondered why they didn’t select David Beckham and be done with it. A little razzmatazz is infinitely better than nothing at all.
The banner which hangs at the back of Middlesbrough’s East Stand summed up what Brazil had and Pearce’s side did not. “It’s in the Blood,” it reads and Menzies’ side, incredibly seeking their first Olympic gold in London, looked like a team with a mutual understanding even before they’d ironed out the roughspots and the jetlag.
Micah Richards is a player in whom Pearce has placed great faith. He would played at the European Championships had the Olympic team manager also taken the national side to Poland but he was part of a central defensive axis with West Ham United’s James Tomkins which looked deeply, deeply uncomfortable. The romance of Britain fielding a collective football team for the first time in 40 years evaporated when the indecision of those two gifted Neymar the kind of opportunity he dreams of. It’s gratifying to known that even players with £60m price tags can put the ball over from five yards
The defenders’ next calamity carried more significance: a collective dither from a 12th minute Oscar free kick and no-one was around to tend to Marcelo at the back post, who stooped to head the ball in.
If there was any hope that the Brazilians might not fancy a chilly Friday night beneath the chemical works, then it was dispelled in the remainder of a first half during which Rafael Barbosa was not required to use his hands. Richards popped up once in the Brazilian area, to power down a header from a free kick curled over from the right by Ryan Giggs, the captain. But it was cleared from danger and that was that.
Pearce should have ended the first half with 10 men, though it was perhaps the Olympic spirit that meant the desperate challenge with which Richards felled Hulk was not punished with a yellow card from the French referee Clement Turpin. Neymar sashayed up to dispatch the 34th minute penalty low to Jason Steele’s right.
Pearce made four half-time substitutions, withdrawing Daniel Sturridge who was being eased back as he recovers from viral meningitis and will be assessed this morning to see how he has come through.
“We will see how he settles overnight,” the manager said. Two of the players he introduced, Tottenham Hospur’s Steven Caulker, at centre back, and the Southampton midfielder Jack Cork, staked a claim to a future starting place. Joe Allen’s distribution was clean and precise at times. But there was no moment of magic, before or after Pearce withdrew Giggs for Aaron Ramsey – the one player you felt might have conjured something but who felt a tightening of his groin. “Whoever beats these will have a gold medal,” Pearce reflected of the Brazilians. They have probably been preparing for two or three years. We played extremely well out from the back and passed the ball reasonably well up to the final third.”
There will be more to shout about than this – and more than last night’s 24,000 fans to shout it – when Pearce’s players face the lesser threat of Senegal, who they ought to beat at Old Trafford on Thursday. By then, someone might also have thought up a song, because it is certainly difficult to know how to chant for Britain. But if anyone was in any doubt about it, we now know that Pearce will not have found the envelope marked “Olympic domination” by then.