TEAM GB coach Stuart Pearce believes the Olympic football tournament is in danger of being underestimated.
Those who remain unconverted to the idea of football being part of the sporting extravaganza about to unleash itself at London 2012 would have had all their pre-conceptions underlined at Old Trafford this week.
A grand total of seven reporters, plus a television crew, were in the Europa Suite as Pearce, accompanied by skipper Ryan Giggs, looked ahead to GB’s opening match against Senegal tonight.
That could see an appearance by Saints midfielder Jack Cork, who came on as a sub in GB’s 2-0 friendly loss to Brazil at Middlesbrough last Friday.
The press conference itself had been brought forward by 24 hours to allow for greater coverage of Hope Powell’s women’s side, who were opening the Games in Cardiff yesterday.
Greeted with scores of empty seats, Pearce smiled and said: “We could have done this in my bedroom.”
Whilst a communication breakdown may have been responsible for the lack of numbers, the turnout was almost in keeping with the way GB’s participation is being viewed by so many.
For them, football is about England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, not a made-up team in an event more usually associated with athletes, swimmers, cyclists, horse riders and other sports who, however briefly, get to enjoy the kind of attention bestowed on the round ball game for the rest of the year.
This view rather ignores the fact football has been an Olympic event since 1900 and amongst its gold medallists Lev Yashin, Samuel Eto’o, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.
Seventy thousand people have been enthused enough to get themselves tickets for tonight’s game, the second part of a double header that also includes tournament heavyweights Uruguay taking on United Arab Emirates.
And Pearce feels those at the game, and the ones watching on TV, are in for a shock.
“We do belittle,” he said.
“If I roll the clock back a calendar year, I was fortunate to go with England to Colombia for the Under-20s World Cup .
“We played a group match against Argentina in front of 44,000 people. The standard was fantastic, the tournament and the exposure were fantastic.
Very few people in England knew there was a tournament going on.
“That is how we underestimate tournaments.
“The same will apply to the Olympics .
“Once it gets started and they see the magnitude of the teams, the professionalism and the standard of football they will see, they will sit up and take notice.”
Pearce bristled at the suggestion the women’s game has far more to gain from their Olympic experience.
“I find it quite sad if it was viewed that way,” he said.
“Every individual who has the opportunity to participate in this Olympics will come away a better player for it.”