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By Matthew Handley
As the Great Britain Men’s Football Team walked onto the pitch at Old Trafford on Friday night, I recalled a Sunday afternoon in the St Hugh’s JCR some way back in the dark, revision-clouded days of Trinity. ‘I’d rather win the Community Shield than an Olympic Gold’, came the statement from a particularly opinionated Arsenal fan. Whilst the claim seemed to reflect more on the bareness of the Emirates’ trophy cabinet than the worth of the Olympic football competition, the comparison was an interesting one nonetheless. Both are low on the list of priorities at club and international level respectively. Both are often seen as an unwelcome break-up to pre-season preparations. And both often see a less-than elite squad take to the field. As Ryan Giggs prepared to lead Team GB out, I struggled to find it in me to care any more about this than I would about the Community Shield…
Football at the Olympics falls into a strange bracket alongside tennis, where a gold medal is far from the most prestigious prize the sport has to offer; even the most ardent of football fans may struggle to name the side who won in Beijing 2008 (it’s Argentina, by the way), whereas even passive observers could tell you that Spain triumphed at the last World Cup. The lack of esteem attached to Olympic Football is only heightened by the fact it falls within weeks of the European Championships; not only is something of an overkill reached, but it usually means that the continent’s best players deign not to participate.
Between 1984 and 1992 came the only period in which professional players of all ages were able to participate in the games; before it was an exclusively amateur competition, and afterwards it became the quasi-under-23s tournament we see today, (with a quota of 3 over-age players also admitted to the squad). Whilst this gives the competition a youthful and vibrant zest, allowing less established footballing nations to excel (especially African sides), for the neutral, watching teams comprised largely of unknowns, after seeing, in Spain, the greatest international side in footballing history triumph only a month before, feels a bit like finishing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ before sticking on Arnie as Mr Freeze in ‘Batman and Robin’.
But hey, watching Great Britain turn out for the first time since 1960 sounds pretty cool; a team made up of the finest England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has to offer taking on the world, with home support behind them. But all those aside from England conspired to ruin everyone’s fun by attempting to prevent their players from participating, either through scare tactics suggesting that their independence would be compromised, or by being a bit crap. And so we were left with a team of 13 Englishmen and 5 Welshmen, with the star value of Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy counterbalanced by the far from ‘marquee names’ of Ryan Bertrand, Jack Cork and Marvin Sordell.
It sounded like a recipe for mediocrity, apathy, and boredom. And yet, and yet…
As Giggs took the team on to the pitch they were met by a cacophony of noise. That Olympic ‘spirit’ which on paper sounds like wank of the highest order, but is actually making UNBEARABLY EXCITIN seemed to take hold. A British team, even if it didn’t deserve the adjective ‘Great’, playing on British soil, was a new and exciting phenomenon. And, even though he said it with the enthusiasm of Jacques Rogge undergoing a colonoscopy, Stuart Pearce was right when he spoke of a ‘carnival atmosphere’ in the stadium. The imagination behind the chanting (‘GB’ repeated ad infinitum) wouldn’t stand up at a Premier League match, but that didn’t matter; this wasn’t a crowd comprised of the tribalistic old guard, or the LAD firm that are ubiquitous at England games, but by families and kids. The atmosphere felt more spontaneous, especially after Craig Bellamy gave GB the lead, a spontaneity also reflected in the exuberant celebrations of the players; for all involved, this is clearly a tournament that matters.
If Team GB win a medal, it won’t elevate them to the same level as the English heroes of 1966. But it will add to the magical narrative already being forged throughout these games. If this motley crew made up of youngsters and veterans seeking a last hurrah, led by Psycho, and formed for ‘one night only’ were to triumph on home soil, it would be a fittingly British ending to a curious story in a curious competition. The Olympic Games give us football, but not as we know it; but it’s fast becoming something quite special. As they take on the UAE at Wembley this evening, another chapter shall be added to what could yet become the feel-good hit of the summer. I for one would rather have that than a Community Shield.