London 2012: A different type of football

 

It was a little bit as though the Last Night of the Proms had merged with a teenage disco and been transported to a football stadium.

The union flags were out in full force, as was the face paint and the official Team GB clothing. Dance tunes thundered over the public address system and despite rumours - apparently unfounded - that the stadium had run out of pies, everybody seemed very, very upbeat.

Great Britain's Group A fixture against Senegal was their first Olympic match since 1960 and, with the Games not starting in earnest until after Friday's opening ceremony, it was prime time on BBC One.

Without doubt, Thursday at Old Trafford represented a glorious opportunity for Great Britain to start a new chapter in the team's Olympic football history.

After all the debate, cynicism and scepticism about the merits of GB playing in the football tournament at the 2012 Olympics, nay, even about having football as an event at the Games at all, this was the moment for Stuart Pearce's team to place a marker in the sand.

Bellamy scores GB's first goal

Hours and hours before the 20:00 BST kick-off, the area around Old Trafford in Manchester was throbbing with people, many of them families that GB coach Stuart Pearce acknowledged may not have been football regulars, noting that they created "more of a carnival atmosphere".

They were not the sort of fans who would have debated the merits of having two established left-backs (Neil Taylor and Ryan Bertrand) in the starting XI, but they were sure going to cheer the team at every opportunity.

The GB team were roared out of the tunnel situated at the corner of Old Trafford, and that was just the backroom staff. The 72,176 inside the ground chanted "GB" and followed it up with lots of hand clapping. Asked about it, Pearce quipped that "Great Britain is a bit of a mouthful".

Craig Bellamy's goal - the first for GB in 52 years and something the Welshman afterwards described as "definitely special" - prompted a huge cheer; spontaneous and pure, different somehow from the usual more punchy noise that follows a goal at football games.

The match had the feel of something special, something significant, something Olympic. And with 10 minutes to go everything was going according to script, but then Senegal equalised through Moussa Konate; a pinprick in the GB balloon.

There was a desperation flowing down from the stands as GB pushed for a winner. It was genuinely inspiring to see Ryan Giggs - at 38 the oldest man in the football tournament - looking so fit, mobile and determined, the most likely to conjure something up. No one could say that playing for GB does not matter to him.

And yet as Pearce acknowledged afterwards, their African opponents deserved a draw. They looked more threatening and created the better chances. At times they were crude and arguably lucky not to face stronger sanction than three yellow cards, but that seemed to only add to the atmosphere.

Meet Team GB from 1960

It raised the hackles of several Team GB players - most notably Bellamy and Taylor - but GB's problems go far deeper than the approach of the opposition.

GB looked more composed and defensively organised than during last week's warm-up match against Brazil but the cutting edge is still missing. The raw truth is that their first-choice forward - Daniel Sturridge - is recovering from meningitis and only lasted 45 minutes. His replacement, Bolton's Marvin Sordell, has three Premier League substitute appearances to his name.

That said, such are the fine margins involved that the verdict on the evening could have been so different if his late effort had not hit the crossbar.

A team that can afford to leave Aaron Ramsey on the bench obviously has a strong midfield but when the manager states after that he will have to go away and "decode the positives" it does not suggest that they are jumping out at him. As Pearce himself noted, his team's performance was "a mixed bag".

The verdict on the performance was written in the body language of the players at the final whistle. It was all slumped shoulders and hands on hips, while Giggs spent a lengthy period castigating the referee for his failure to get to grips with the very physical Senegalese.

On the plus side, the very fact they have played another game together, only their third after a behind-closed-doors meeting with Mexico and the 2-0 defeat against Brazil, must surely be a benefit. Bellamy admitted afterwards that GB had tired, but their fitness will improve the deeper they go in the tournament.

Spain 0-1 Japan

It was also a day when several of the heavily fancied teams struggled. Spain were defeated by Japan, Uruguay fell behind against the United Arab Emirates before winning 2-1 and Brazil were pegged back to 3-2 against Egypt after racing into a three-goal lead. Successful teams often grow into a tournament, rather than start with a bang.

But after failing to deliver the result that the crowd so desperately craved, GB know there can be no slip-ups on Sunday against a UAE side that caused La Celeste lots of problems.

Giggs has already made it clear that he wants to see a GB team at future Olympics, not just on home soil at these Games. But he said after Wednesday's draw that establishing their credibility will depend on their success in 2012.

"If we go a long way and the interest gets bigger that will have a massive bearing on it," said the GB skipper. "Hopefully we can do that and silence some of the sceptics."

Bellamy was more succinct in his assessment, claiming "we have to stay in this tournament".

Ultimately the draw provided more questions than answers, certainly with regard to whether GB are good enough to get out of their group, let alone win a medal.

But what does seem clear is that Pearce's side look set to continue the trend of British international teams shredding the nerves of their fans.