A predictable British failure
Saturday, August 4 2012 is likely to be remembered as the greatest day in British sporting history. Down on the rowing lake at Eton Dorney, two golds were collected before a narrow silver reduced even Steve Redgrave to tears. London 2012's Velodrome continued to be dominated by Britain's all-conquering cyclists as a gold and a world record were duly collected in the Women's Team Pursuit.
And then there was the remarkable 45 minutes within which glamour girl Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon, flame-haired wildcard Greg Rutherford leaped furthest in the Long Jump and Mo Farah topped it all off by surging clear of the Kenyans, Ethiopians and an American to win a minefield of a 10,000m. National pride has rarely been so stratospheric in Britain yet concurrently the English national game was still telling the same old story.
Over in Cardiff, an achingly familiar narrative was unravelling. Great Britain's soccer adventure was slowly going the way of English football flesh. Just as at Euro 2012 and at World Cup 2010, an unconvincing group stage was followed by crashing disappointment in the knock-out round.
At least the Welsh can say that football is not their national game but their players have now suffered the same pain as their English counterparts. The Principality had provided Stuart Pearce with his best performers but Aaron Ramsey was a victim of normal-time penalty pain in following a fortuitous conversion with exactly the same strike. South Korea's Jung Sung-Ryong was not to be foxed this time.
Even before that, Jack Butland had made the type of error that too often befalls English goalkeepers in tournament football in allowing Ji Dong-Won's tame effort to evade his grasp. The teenage keeper then staged something of a pale imitation of Joe Hart's playground antics against Italy at the Euros. Sticking his tongue out and shadow boxing was not going to put off a set of Korean penalty takers who were clearly far better drilled than British counterparts who, despite all the warnings from history, probably still see shoot-outs as 'a lottery'.
Pearce, a man whose credentials as a coach have rarely convinced, now faces an uncertain future. Frozen out of Euro 2012 by Roy Hodgson's regime, Pearce's precise role at the English Football Association is in doubt. Officially, Pearce remains in charge of the England Under-21 team, but he has appeared a spare part ever since Hodgson's appointment meant that Pearce would not be taking England to the Euros as a caretaker and would have little or no portfolio in Poland or Ukraine.
He will most certainly not be lauded for his inability to alter Team GB's tactics as time ticked on in Wales, and extra-time and penalties became inevitable. A rather stubborn refusal to pick local hero Ryan Giggs from the start in Cardiff meant that Ramsey was not spared his penalty blushes when his captain has converted a series of pressure spot-kicks in recent years. Scott Sinclair too, might have been a better choice to be handed the responsibility from 12 yards.
And it had to be an Englishman who would suffer the ignominy of missing the crucial penalty. Daniel Sturridge had looked nervous when Giggs could be seen delivering him a pep talk just after the coin-toss for ends had taken place. Once Sturridge adopted the stuttering run-up that allows too much time for a player to change his mind, it was clear he would miss. Sturridge's error capped off a tournament in which he has been wholly inconsistent, from a pallid showing at Old Trafford in the opener to a fine lobbed strike against UAE, the winner against Uruguay to a nervy and blunted showing in the quarter-final. Sturridge has always been a young man of considerable confidence but he will know that he must get much better to force his way in at Chelsea, where a battalion of midfield playmakers have many thinking they might even play 4-6-0 next season.
For the Welsh players, this has either been a unique taste of tournament football or perhaps for their younger contingent, a pointer to the future. Giggs clearly cherished the experience, as did Craig Bellamy, GB's outstanding performer in the group stage. In the aftermath of defeat, Giggs singled out Joe Allen to corroborate why Brendan Rodgers is prepared to sour relations with Swansea City to take the midfielder to Liverpool. Neil Taylor, too, flourished, even from the wrong flank as full-back. Even allowing for their Euro 2012 contingent not being eligible, it is a concern to the English that the group of outstanding British performers were almost exclusively Welsh.
And the Scots and Northern Irish will think they are best off out of it. Losing in the last eight means that football's Team GB, hugely unlikely to return in Rio in 2016, has failed to carve itself a significant role among what has been otherwise a thrilling sporting narrative to the British public. Football has looked out of place at this Olympics, since over-familiarity has bred something of contempt, and most certainly disinterest. While tennis, through Andy Murray and Laura Robson, can offer medal success to vouch for its inclusion, 90 minutes of football seems a poor fit to an Olympiad where short fixes of swimming, rowing, cycling and now athletics have kept a nation rapt.
While Brazil, even allowing for a shaky defence, looked nailed on for gold, South Korea can celebrate uncharted territory, and Japan and Mexico can try and improve on the bronze medals that are their best previous performances. The British fell short of being able to dream of the podium.
Only by reaching the stages at which medals can be won could football have captured any of the wider British public's distracted consciousness, even allowing for the sell-out crowds that watched Team GB, often with some bemusement. Sadly, predictably, on a day when their sport was rendered a backwater by the heroics of others, Great Britain's footballers failed to create an Olympic legacy.