After a 52-year absence from the Olympic Games, Great Britain are about to step out at London 2012, where they will be hoping home advantage can give them the platform to win their first medal in a century.
Their coach, former England international and long-standing Three Lions U-21 boss Stuart Pearce, spoke exclusively to FIFA.com ahead of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, which they kick off against Senegal on Thursday.
The tactician spoke of the special atmosphere surrounding the tournament, the benefit of having experienced, over-age stars like Ryan Giggs among the squad, and how they will have to make home advantage count.
FIFA.com: Of the tournaments you have been head coach at, this has been by far the most high-profile. Have you approached it differently?
Stuart Pearce: No, to be honest with you. We had a good experience last summer, I think the only thing that’s slightly different is the other tournaments I’ve been involved with were at the end of our football season, so the training has tailored slightly differently. I had the experience of going to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia at the same time as this tournament, so myself and the majority of my staff were at that tournament so we have that experience to draw on and take into this. In the main the preparation has been fairly similar; the only difference I would say is we have worked harder physically than we have going into other tournaments.
What has been your focus in training, considering the short time you have been together? Tactics, forming a unit, the opponents you will face?
I think we’ve trodden the balance really. We know physically we’ve got to bring them to the boil in time for the Senegal game. We had in the back of our mind that our first game against Mexico was not going to be the finished article, and probably the same against Brazil, but we have to hit the ground running against Senegal.
How did you go about selecting the over-age players?
Simple really, look at the young players, look at where they would fit into the squad and then from there look at where we are weak. Up front certainly, we needed to put Craig Bellamy in, at the back Micah Richards and Ryan Giggs’ form has been outstanding this year. Really it was just a case of having a look at the youngster on a piece of paper and saying, "Right, where are we strong? We’ve got three picks, where are we weak in certain areas of the pitch?" That’s what we’ve done and it’s really down the spine of the team.
Does this mean you feel the team is fairly balanced?
Yeah. The three over-age players have given us something special, they’ve got experience, they’re respected greatly not just for their performances but for their stature in the game and the young players can learn a great deal from them both on and off the football pitch. They’re here to set an example to the young players but they’re also here by right on their performances.
Has it been a bonus, compared to your usual work with the U-21s, to have a couple of elder statesman within the squad?
We’ve operated slightly differently in this tournament and myself as a manager as well. Ryan Giggs is the captain of the squad and he’s been involved in staff meetings as well to talk about training and to give us some feedback on the players. That’s something I don’t do at U-21 level, or even at club level to be fair, so that’s been something different for me and it’s worked really well. I think Ryan’s quite enjoyed having that input with us as well. With the experience he’s got, what he’s achieved in the game and a sensible opinion that benefits everyone – not just Ryan Giggs – it’s been a real bonus for us having him as part of the set-up.
Have the Welsh contingent settled in well?
Yeah, they have. They’ve probably gelled quicker than I thought they would as a group, let alone different nationalities – we picked them purely on name rather than nationality – so I wasn’t sure how quickly they would gel. The fact we had a training camp outside Great Britain has helped us, they’ve come together very quickly not just off the pitch but on it as well I believe. They’ve adopted everything we’ve asked in training, they’ve pushed themselves to the maximum physically and we’re delighted where we are at this moment in time and know full well we’ve got a lot of work going forward.
Compared to teams like Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, who have been training together for some time, do you feel at a disadvantage?
We’re coming at it in a different way. We haven’t had to qualify, the other 15 teams all have, and with that brings a collective – they’ve had longer to prepare the team, more time for the coach to work with the players and get to know them. In that respect, yes, we are at a slight disadvantage, where we are at an advantage is we’re on home soil. We understand the travelling and we hope our supporters will get behind us to give us that extra push and edge. I think our players were unsure what to expect when they came through the door a fortnight ago but when they got kitted out and went to the Olympic village I think they realised the magnitude of the tournament now and that’s something we have to use to our advantage.
Has anything taken you by surprise at all by it being such a global event, and transcending football? As obviously the players have never been involved, but neither have you?
You’re right in saying that. I’ve been to World Cups and European Championships as a player and obviously U-21 championships and World Cups as a coach but there’s something slightly different about this. I speak to the players and it’s one of those scenarios you can’t quite put into words but there’s something a little bit special about this one, something bigger than what we’re normally used to. While it’s difficult for me to say specifically, there is something different about this, and I think the players get that sense as well that this is a massive tournament. Now the EUROs have gone, all the focus is on this and we’re in the countdown now so we have to be ready to hit the ground and make sure all our group games are sold out and we bring a crowd to the party to give us the extra push we need.
What problems do you feel you will face in the group stage?
It would be folly to dismiss anyone to be fair. We know [Luis] Suarez, obviously, [Edinson] Cavani has played European games, so the strike force of Uruguay has to be respected. We’ve just seen Senegal beat Spain away 2-0, I saw the game where Senegal qualified against Oman, while UAE come into this with 17 matches behind them. On top of that you have to contend with 18 players in each squad, any injuries or suspensions is going to push you really tight, and the fact of having a lot of travelling between matches means recovery times are going to be absolutely paramount. Whoever wins the tournament will not only probably be the best side, but also the side who have recovered the best, travelled the best and avoided suspensions, injuries and everything else. I think a lot will be thrown into the melting pot before you pick a winner out, purely for the fact you have to win six games in 17 days, that’s a big ask for any nation.
So do you feel you are working with a squad stronger than your usual U-21 side?
One hundred per cent. The three over-age players to start with would get in my U-21 team, Joe Allen would do, so would Ramsey, so would Taylor, so I have the Welsh boys to choose from as well. There’s no doubt that this is stronger than my U-21 team and I feel that’s reflected in training as well.
As you say, with the likes of Suarez and Cavani with Uruguay, and Marcelo, Hulk and Thiago Silva with Brazil, do you feel the EUROs have curtailed you a little in preventing you from using the whole plethora of players for your over-age selections?
Yeah, and even under-age selections. We had eight under-age players go to the EUROs that are outside my selection, we were fortunate enough to get [Jack] Butland, the goalkeeper. I’ve still got seven players unavailable to me who were eligible, let alone the over-age players. What it does is give the 18 players we have with us a fantastic opportunity, though I would say the majority of them would have been fighting for a place in the squad anyway. I think whenever a coach gets his team together you only worry about the ones who are there.
What are your hopes for the tournament? Are medals a realistic hope?
I as an individual set my team up to go all the way and to the win the final. We train to win the final, we practice penalties to win the final. I’d be very disappointed if any coach out of the 16 teams had a different mentality to myself to be honest with you. As we’ve seen on English soil, or British soil as it is now, the World Cup was won in 1966 at home, in EURO 96 we were a semi-final away from getting to a final and who knows, home advantage all over the world plays a real big part in football, so we have to make sure our performances are good enough to draw in the crowds.
What’s the public reaction been like?
We get a real sense of excitement. I’ve travelled around this country with England squads, both at senior and U-21, but we’ve never stopped the traffic like we have with Team GB. Coming back into the country last Tuesday, travelling on the underground and trains, people are stopping and it’s something special. Britain in general can be a little bit reserved, but when it gets close it really builds up, once it gets going and the momentum gets going there’s a real interest in this team.
You ruled yourself out of the England job quite quickly when it was vacant earlier this year, saying you weren’t experienced enough. Are tournaments like this providing you the experience you feel to be prepared for the job in the future?
I’ve always felt that when I finished playing at 40-years-old I was embarking on a totally new career, I didn’t feel the game owed me a living in any shape or form, or that I owed it anything either. I felt I was starting again from day one as a coach and a manager, and it was up to me to work as hard as I could to go on as many courses as I could, to gain as much experience at tournaments, in classrooms, watching other coaches, whatever it may be to build up a CV that is comparable to anyone else doing my job at this level. So this tournament is another marker in time for me, it gives me great experience. I see coaching as a profession and not something you should be catapulted into and deliver yourself at whatever level because the media at any given time think you’re flavour of the month and put your name forward. I spoke with my boss Trevor Brooking some time back, just a conversation in general about my expectations on going on to doing senior work, and I said I wouldn’t be ready for that and wouldn’t be ready after Fabio [Capello] - I knew that in my own mind. I’ll gain that experience, if that opportunity ever comes, fine. If it doesn’t come, it means I wasn’t good enough to attain the job and I have to live with that.