Those who were there agreed they had never seen anything like it. At the GB Olympic football team press conference this week, Craig Bellamy was positively gushing. A man whose normal exchanges with the media are characterised by the donning of steel helmets, the footballer who generally puts the grump in grumpy was giddy with excitement.
Bellamy had just checked into the Olympic Park and was beginning to take in the scale of the event in which he was about to play a part. He admitted that it is not often in the world of the Premier League star, where everything from adulation to cash comes on tap, that he has his breath taken away. But this was one of those moments. The scale of the place, the enormity of it, the diversity.
The night before he and the rest of the GB team had been given a talk by Dame Kelly Holmes, in which the great runner had encouraged the celebrity footballers to cast aside cynicism, to plunge into the new world surrounding them and to enjoy themselves. Don't isolate, yourself, she had said. Engage with your fellow athletes. Take advantage of an experience that may well never come again. Bellamy insisted that was precisely what he intended to do. And already he was out hunting for Usain Bolt to seek an autograph.
It was a delight to hear, not least because it is so rare to come across a sportsman exhibiting the same levels of childish enthusiasm all of us would show given just a minute in their shoes. The default position for the modern pro is world-weary disaffection. And here was Bellamy telling us how fantastic it was to be in an athletes village which is about as close to his normal environment as a student dorm is to the Ritz.
Alongside him Ryan Giggs was equally excited, suggesting that Team GB should become an Olympic fixture rather than a home games one-off. And of course the cynic might point out that the root of their positivity might lie in the fact that, deep into their thirties, this is the first and last time that the pair of Welshmen will be involved in a major international competition. Why the old timers were so enthused may have had something to do with the fact that at last they are getting a taste of what their team-mates have so long experienced.
But maybe there is something about the Olympics. Maybe the fact that football is not the be-all and end-all, that players normally so cossetted are plunged into the harem scarem of communal living, alongside everyone from three day eventers to Greco-Roman wrestlers really has made this special. Maybe it will give them all a moment's pause to recognise how privileged they are.
Whether such enthusiasm will spread into their play — or indeed infect the crowd — is another thing. With Spain, Brazil and Uruguay all fielding strong teams, it seems unlikely Team GB will make it to the latter stages of the competition, whatever the encouragement of home backing. At the outside, the most we might hope for is a semi. But who knows how the squad will gel, who knows who — if anyone — will score the goals, who knows if the coach can cast aside a career favouring the long ball game and really adopt the more measured approach suggested by his choice of squad (including three from the Premier League's tika-taka specialists, Swansea).
One thing, at least the players will be fresh. There will be none of the exhaustion that generally undermines English teams heading to international tournaments at the end of a fierce domestic seasons. Everyone has reported for duty off the back of a decent break, recharged and ready. Even Daniel Sturridge, who has spent much of his summer laid up with illness, reports that he is anxious to get out there and kick a ball around.
And we don't have to worry too much about whether they will get enough sleep in the student block atmosphere of the athletes' village: after one night in its Spartan surrounds, the team headed up to Middlesbrough's training ground, where they are being billeted in the five star Rockcliffe Hall hotel next door. On Saturday, after they have played a friendly at the Riverside against Brazil, they are heading to the equally swanky Mottram Hall hotel ahead of their game with Senegal in Manchester which opens their campaign. There is no doubt everything is being done to help these boys perform.
And in Manchester we will see if this London Olympics really is as wonderful as Bellamy insists. Then we will discover if there is something more to it than novelty. Then we will find out if it might fire the imagination of a public who — if ticket sales are anything to go by — have yet to be convinced.
- Sports & Recreation