Stuart Pearce offered credit to the inspiration generated by Bradley Wiggins, by Britain’s women footballers and by the entire Olympic experience – along with his own players – as he led his own team into the quarter-finals of London 2012.
Britain have not appeared in the last eight since Melbourne in 1956 and the coach deserves an honourable mention all to himself for holding his nerve and wringing a better performance from his men with each succeeding game.
Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Uruguay in the Millennium Stadium lifted Britain top of Group A and through to a quarter-final date back in Cardiff against South Korea on Saturday.
Great Britain and Brazil are the two nations still alive in the knockout stages of both the men’s and women’s tournaments. Brazil remain favourites to win men’s gold for the first time – especially after Spain’s eclipse – and second favourites behind the inevitable United States in the women’s event.
Uruguay began the men’s tournament promisingly but subsided with each succeeding game. Not that this should detract from Team GB’s game-by-game improvement. The cohesion showed against the Celeste was remarkable considering how, in the warm-up against Brazil at Middlesbrough, Britain had looked a pub scratch team.
Pearce said: “We are delighted to be out of the group. You can see what a tough group it was but I think we deserved to win it. The team have got stronger and stronger as the tournament has progressed. We’re pleased with a result against a very good Uruguayan side and now it’s all about recovery in time for Saturday’s game.”
Reviewing the inspirational forces, Pearce started with the Welsh fans who volubly dispelled concerns about a negative reaction to the national anthem and roared Britain on, particularly in the closing stages when the defence was under severe pressure from the skills of Luis Suarez.
Pearce said: “Winding the clock I remember people telling me there would be a negative response but we’ve not seen that and, all in all, it’s best a fantastic day with Bradley Wiggins’s gold medal and all that means across Britain.
“We didn’t watch his race together because of preparations for the match but I would expect the players are watching the events and we all feel part of it because we’ve had the Olympic Village experience.
“Also, the women’s team winning against Brazil gave us a lift. Every time they get a good result it’s as if we are trying to emulate the women’s game – which is fantastic. We’re all under the Olympic umbrella and want to do well . . . we’ve been delighted to play our small part and get the result which gets us out of the group.”
Pearce is too experienced a campaigner ever to dare looking too far ahead but having reached the quarter-finals means that talk – or stray thoughts at least – of a medal are inevitable. If Britain win the quarter-final then the semi-final opens up the four-way option of gold or silver or bronze or – after the third-place play-off – nothing at all.
“The importance of this next game is pretty high,” he said. “If you can win this one then you have two shots at attempting to get a medal. We’ve only ever planned and prepared to win the tournament – though I’ll stick by what I’ve said that Brazil were vast favourites from the outset and when we played them [in a warm-up game] their performance echoed those thoughts.
“Of course they’ve done extremely well but football’s quite funny and when you get into a situation like this with a game every three days the physical and mental aspects play a really large part.”
Uruguay’s veteran coach, Oscar Washington Tabarez, exploded a happy myth about Great Britain being the only (compartivaly) unprepared team as he prepared to pack his bags and head home to pick up the South American World Cup qualifying campaign.
Being played in August, the Olympic football time comes at an awkward time in the calendar because all European-based players are in pre-season mode, refreshed but not match fit.
That is an issue for not only the European teams but also for the South Americans who want to call on the experience of European-based players – as did Tabarez with the likes of Luis Suarez and Edilson Cavani (Suarez rose to the challenge far better than the Napoli man).
The South Americans also suffer from not having a perpetuating under-21 tournament to match the biannual European version.
Tabarez said: “You know, there is no easy way to prepare for this tournament. One of the main problems is that the players from the foreign leagues are just coming off a summer break but another is that we don’t have a current under-23 team. If we did then we would have had a better foundation for the squad.
“Also with a tournament like this, with games every three days, there is no time for players to work together, as they really need, in training.”
All the more credit then, for Pearce and his staff.
OLYMPIC FOOTBALL QUARTER-FINALS (times local)
Japan v Egypt (Manchester, 12)
Mexico v Senegal (Wembley, 2.30)
Brazil v Honduras (Newcastle, 5)
Great Britain v South Korea (Cardiff, 7.30)
Sweden v France (Glasgow, 12)
United States v New Zealand (Newcastle, 2.30)
Brazil v Japan (Cardiff, 5)
Great Britain v Canada (Coventry, 7.30)