Stuart Pearce battles low hopes and apathy with untested Team GB Olympic football side
Games fervour in short supply at sparsely attended briefing but Team GB coach is on a mission to showcase Olympic football
"We should have held it in my bedroom," said Stuart Pearce, casting his eyes around the press conference theatre set out to accommodate 130 but at which only seven journalists had gathered last night to hear him deliver his first Olympics briefing.
It was a surreal occasion, Pearce's inquisitors passing the microphone around between themselves as if they really needed to, because the Olympics apparatchiks insisted they must. This probably did not fit Ryan Giggs' mental image of what Olympic captaincy would be like as he, too, took a top table seat in the Old Trafford Europa Suite where Sir Alex Ferguson sits down to preview Manchester United's Champions League matches, the room always heaving and the football world hanging on his every word.
Such is the size of the task Pearce faces in making Olympics football something enervating, or even relevant, to the British nation. GB's friendly match against Brazil at a half-occupied Riverside Stadium last Friday night was not quite the glittering occasion some had imagined and it was perhaps with that in mind that goalkeeper Jack Butland, whose performance was the most positive aspect of that 2-0 defeat, yesterday asked for individual and team chants for the GB team "to get the stands buzzing throughout the Olympics". "Any ideas?" Butland tweeted, eventually settling for "ooh aah gbr, say ooh aah gbr."
His GB manager argued that the British public had a habit of "belittling" football tournaments they know less about. Pearce cited the England Under-20s playing in front of 44,000 people against Argentina in the Colombia World Cup last year. "We do belittle," he said. "Maybe because it is the first time – that plays its part. The one thing we have to do is showcase our sport so that we can put another team in the Olympics and participate."
But Pearce was not forthcoming when asked for his memories of Olympic football and the reality, however much he denies it, is that the British women's game – striving for recognition as its own domestic league struggles for crowds and momentum – has far more to gain from a good Olympics than the men. "I find it quite sad if it was viewed that way," Pearce reflected.
The anticlimax of the Riverside made you wonder whether a little of David Beckham's razzmatazz would have been better than nothing but Pearce – busily "making sure my CV keeps getting topped up and I improve" as he put it late on Friday night in Middlesbrough – wants results. With the unenviable challenge in their last group game of Uruguay, the real gold contenders along with Brazil and Spain, a win over Senegal tomorrow night is imperative. Pearce's squad is inexperienced – only seven of the squad have made more than 20 starts in the Premier League, while neither goalkeeper has made a single top-flight appearance – but the only Senegalese to lose sleep over is Mohamed Diamé, signed by West Ham United from Wigan Athletic this summer. Diamé said yesterday that "it's good for us to start against them because it will take time for the British players to get to know each other properly". Pearce has admitted that acclimatisation has been taking a time. "They are a strong, physically athletic side. They counter-attack very quickly. They are going to be a tough nut to crack in this group," Pearce said of tomorrow's opposition.
"Of course, we have a great chance to win," said the Senegalese midfielder Sadio Mene, whose standard of club football in the French second division with Metz perhaps best reflects what Pearce and his men are up against. Daniel Sturridge, who came through last Friday's game after recovery from meningitis, should be a threat.
Pearce reflected on the fact that Old Trafford will be at capacity as evidence that the notion of a Team GB football team can fly. "The fact we are at blue-chip stadiums, the fact that we have sold out all the stadiums near as damn it, I think we have a fantastic opportunity to sow the seed and say can this happen more often? We can say to the general public in Great Britain, 'Look, this is a valid tournament.'"
A sport which gorges on the Premier League feast most of the year round will take much persuading of that, as will the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland FAs who do not want a Team GB beyond this Games, fearing for their independence. But that habitual yearning for some international silverware will come flooding back in the unlikely event that Pearce can get within touching distance of gold and Olympic success will also prove that the Corinthian spirit is not entirely dead in a sport which could use some help with its image. "The one thing we have to do is showcase our sport," Pearce told the empty room.
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