In many ways, the soccer match that unfolded at Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium Thursday evening followed a familiar script. In the hours leading up to kickoff, fans bedecked in red (the color of home club Manchester United) streamed into the stands, trailed by the scent of overpriced hot dogs and fish ‘n chips. But on this night intercoms blared announcements in both English and French, and flags unknown to many locals—think North Korea and the United Arab Emirates—hung from the stadium’s rafters. That’s because this Premier League stadium was hosting the first day of men’s soccer at the 2012 Olympics.
Anyone who remotely follows the sport will know that the Olympics in no way represents the pinnacle of competitive soccer. Playing in a World Cup final remains the dream of children from Brazil to Germany, and few could tell you that Nigeria won the silver medal in Beijing. In Britain, where soccer is the unofficial national sport, tribal loyalties ensure that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales compete separately at the international level. It’s no wonder that Great Britain did not field a soccer team at the last 12 Olympics. “When I think of the Olympics, I don’t really think about soccer,” said 17-year old Amanda McCue before taking her seat at Old Trafford. “I think of all the other sports, but I guess soccer is a big part of it too.”
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Now Brits can say that with certainty. With London hosting the games this year, the nation’s soccer factions decided to set aside their rivalries to compete as one. Around 75,000 spectators turned out to watch a unified Team GB square off with Senegal, a nation making its Olympic debut. Pundits—and even the Senegalese—anticipated a lopsided match. That might explain why the British team marched onto the field for its warm-up to the Black Eyed Peas song “I Gotta Feeling” (that tonight‘s gonna be a good night).
It seemed apt early on. After twenty minutes, captain Ryan Giggs, a Manchester United midfielder and the oldest ever Olympic outfield soccer player at 38, set up a shot for Welshman Craig Bellamy, who put the Brits ahead 1-0. Britain maintained possession of the ball for 61% of the first half. Meanwhile, a physically uncompromising Senegalese side racked up eight fouls to Britain’s five, and its increasingly frustrated players walked off the pitch for halftime with two yellow cards.
Those statistics gave the home crowd reason to cheer. Britain may have been absent from the festivities since 1960, but they made up for it with chants of “GB” so loud they could have been heard in Senegal. Catherine Applegate, a 26-year-old who endured a three-hour drive from Cambridge, said Brits weren’t struggling to get behind their boys. “I think the World Cup teams are more well-known, but when it comes to the Olympics we get behind Team GB as well as we do the other national teams that we have.” Cue fans in red, white and blue spandex suits, and shirtless men with Union Jacks painted on their chests.
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The patriotism lasted, but the celebrations did not. Senegal emerged from the locker rooms a re-vitalized squad—and their physical game seemed to turn into one of downright aggression. In the 70th minute of the match, Senegalese defender Saliou Ciss crunched into Bellamy with two feet. The Brits—and plenty of booing fans—wanted a penalty kick. They didn’t get it. Senegal went on to equalize in the 81st minute. “In a Premier League game he would probably have been sent off three times,” Giggs said after the match. “There were a few naughty challenges. A few of our lads are struggling now.”
That struggle suggests the Olympics may mean more to the British side than people realize. Manager Stuart Pearce suggested the enormity of the Games began to weigh heavy on his players’ minds in the hours leading up to their debut. Speaking in a post-match interview, he said his side had the jitters. “I saw nerves in the dressing room,” he said. “A lot of our players have played Premier League football but this cranked it up a bit.”
Fans can forgive nerves. Less certain is whether they can forgive British players—more specifically, Welsh and Scottish players—who chose not to sing the British national anthem. “Not singing the national anthem is bang out of order,” one user wrote on Twitter, adding that Team GB should “unite on every level when you work together.” More generous commentators suggested that those men, including captain Giggs, simply weren’t used to singing it.
They have a few days to learn the words and soothe any sore feelings. Team GB will play the United Arab Emirates on Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium.