Seventy-two thousand people: that is some crowd. Never mind that they were drawn to Old Trafford as much by curiosity and a desire to participate in the Olympic spirit as any affection for a freshly-minted team, such a pull cannot be easily dismissed.
It was a strange sight, seeing the home of Manchester United playing host to someone else's show. On the route from the tram stop, usually lined by shouty swag workers and fanzine sellers telling you that no, their publication is not the official match programme, dozens of smiley volunteers in horrible purple outfits were stationed to point the way. As if the towering stands of the stadium were not sufficient clue as to the direction of travel. Nevertheless, there they were at every step, wishing you well in the cheeriest of fashions. Such was the number of guides, at these Olympics there must be a serious danger of there being more volunteers than spectators.
This was Manchester, but all the signage talked of London 2012. And inside the stadium the atmosphere was unlike any which normally attaches itself to the place. Calm, restrained, it had none of the visceral charge of a United game. And that was because few in attendance had any real emotional attachment to the home team. Families gathered, couples chatted, youngsters hoped to be picked out on the giant screen which had been erected in the section normally occupied by away supporters. It was the politest crowd you could ever encounter at a football match. Just about the only hint of normality was the ritual booing which greeted every touch by Luis Suarez in the first game of the double header between Uruguay and a surprisingly handy UAE. The diminutive linguist is clearly still not the most popular of figures in these parts.
Which is some contrast with the captain of Team GB and the man most in the crowd had come to see. Twenty-one years after he made his league debut on the same pitch, Ryan Giggs was turning out for the first time in an international tournament. Striding out to the middle, his brow creased in concentration, he did not look a man new to all this. But then, since he has played more matches on the Old Trafford turf than anyone else in history, he should have been reasonably familiar with his surroundings.
Unfortunately his sense of comfort was not shared by many of his colleagues. Nebulous a concept as Team GB might be — so nebulous the crowd spent much of the game wondering how they should back them; GB, clap clap clap the best effort — Stuart Pearce reckoned that a number of his players were betrayed by nerves in this, their first proper fixture. It may have been a different shirt — as ugly as any in the game, incidentally — but the failings familiar to England sides of recent times was evident in every misplaced pass and hoofed clearance.
It was clearly Giggs's intended role to bring a measure of calmness to the proceedings. Sitting deep, just in front of the back four, his job was to control things from the centre circle, dictate the tempo, create the rhythm. He did few of those things. But then he was not helped in such a job by some roughhouse tactics from the Senegalese. Physically enormous — five of their substitutes were over 6'4" — they appeared to have lost their way en route to the basketball stadium.
And they made use of their physique. Craig Bellamy in particular felt the brute edge of their studs. After he scored the GB side's only goal, he was twice subjected to assaults that would not have looked out of place on the taekwondo mat. How the second of these — the one which led to him hobbling from the pitch down the Old Trafford tunnel — did not result in a penalty is anyone's guess. But his Senegalese assailant was not even chastened with a booking. As someone quipped after the away side had equalised with the smartest of late finishes, the result of this match was: Team GB 1 Team GBH 1.
But really, Pearce's side should have had enough nous and capacity to better any thuggish tendencies. That they didn't hardly augurs well for the future of this concept.
As Pearce knows, what he needs to make the Team GB idea fly is success. Capacity houses are a good place to start, but victory is the only fuel that will give his vehicle proper wheels. A few wins and the Team GB concept will develop an unstoppable momentum. But that is some way away. After this, their first competitive outing, they look rather as so many had predicted: a hasty marketing concept, designed solely to exploit the moment. If you were offered odds on whether there will be a Team GB in the Rio Games of four years' time, if I were you I'd keep your money in your pocket.