“It was a bit strange,” said Ryan Giggs, Britain’s 38-year-old captain and a regular with Manchester United.
That might duly capture all of Britain’s feelings about this 16-team event. The Olympics are supposed to be the pinnacle of sport, and for almost all of the 36 that will be contested here, that’s the case. A glaring exception: Men’s soccer. Most of the best players in the world aren’t here for this event, so some of the best fans in the world are happy to show up and take in a match, but also happy their moods and their thoughts and their lives over the coming weeks won’t be colored by the result.
“We haven’t got high expectations,” said Ben Moghan, who draped himself in one of those Union Jacks. “There’s no pressure. It’s not as important.”
How, in a soccer-mad country now hosting the world’s premier sporting event, can this be? For starters, Team GB, as it is dubbed, is more than a bit of an anomaly. The group is a hodgepodge of players from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales — each of which would field its own team when trying to qualify for, say, a World Cup.
The event, then, is more important for players such as Giggs and Bellamy, both Welshmen whose national side hasn’t advanced to the game’s greatest stages, than for some of the English players. Indeed, Bellamy called the opportunity to be an Olympian “an honor.”
That, too, is how the match sold out, and the fans filled up.
“We wanted to be part of the Olympics,” said Adrian Boyd, who traveled from his home in Castle Donington, 80 miles away, with his wife, their two sons and a young friend, another couple and their son. “All these kids, they all play football. We’re all football fans. We just thought, ‘Where could we go?’ ”
The venue, too, was a draw. None of the children had been to Old Trafford, home to Manchestesr United, which still dubs its home pitch the “Theatre of Dreams,” the name given to it by Bobby Charlton, the club’s star in the 1950s and ’60s. Charlton is honored just outside the stadium with a statue. In the rendering, he is joined by fellow legends George Best and Denis Law atop an inscription: “The United Trinity.” They face a similar statue, which sits above the East stands, of Sir Matt Busby, the manager who led United to the 1968 European Cup title.
It was Busby, in fact, who coached the British entry in the 1948 London Games, a squad that reached the semifinals.
But in the subsequent six decades, there is not much Olympic football history. Its last Olympic appearance: 1960. On this night, Old Trafford had the history. The home team didn’t.