Match on Saturday, recovery, training Monday through Friday, repeat: the cycle of a professional footballer can become redundant. There is something that an Olympic Football Tournament brings to the table that is totally outside of a footballer’s normal experience. When Stuart Pearce managed Great Britain at the Olympics in 2012, taking Team GB to the quarter-finals, he found it completely different to anything else he had done before in his accomplished career.
Ahead of Rio 2016, FIFA.com caught up with Pearce to get some of his insight into the Olympic football experience beyond what the world sees on television, and also heard about some of his career highlights.
: Smooth and tough. As I was winding down as a player, I played until I was 40 years old, so from the age of 37 I started my coaching badges and it gave me a great insight to carry on playing and see a different side of playing while coaching. I was fortunate that the day I retired as a player, Kevin Keegan kept me on the coaching staff [at Manchester City] so I went straight into the world of management, which was fantastic for me. I spent three-and-a-half years with him going into board meetings, speaking to financial directors at the football club, extending my knowledge while working within the job. And Kevin Keegan along with his assistant, Arthur Cox, were two real great role models, mentors if you like, who helped me greatly. When I became the manager, it was that mentality of, ‘Hey, I’m not a player anymore’, and trying to make that transition mentally to be someone stood on the touchline who had to be analytical but still had it in him to want to go out there and kick someone.
The toughest time I had probably was when I was put in temporary charge at Nottingham Forest when I was 35 years old. There was a change of ownership and manager and they put me in charge temporarily, and the change I saw in the dressing room - from being the lynchpin in the centre of it and captain of the club to the reaction of other players with me being around, knowing I was picking the team - that was quite interesting. From a psychological aspect, it opened my eyes greatly. It just showed me that, as a manager, you are a manager and you can never, ever go back into the changing room as a player.
I would say at this moment in time, from a managerial point of view, it was probably the biggest honour and a wonderful eye-opener for me to be involved in something that was bigger than football. We were showcasing our profession in something that was so global and so big; it was quite incredible. The professionalism of it and the amateurism of it, all in one go, was quite outstanding. There were people there, you’re talking about billion-dollar athletes training in the same gym in the Olympic village alongside somebody who was totally amateur. It was so refreshing, it really was. It blew our players away! They weren’t sure what they were coming in to from the offset, but as soon as we went to our first kit launch and walked into the Olympic village, all of a sudden their eyes were opened and I think all of the players thought, ‘This is a wonderful experience’.
There were people there, you’re talking about billion-dollar athletes training in the same gym in the Olympic village alongside somebody that was totally amateur. It was so refreshing. It really was.
We arrived in the Olympic village—our players had trained or played the day before—and I had to do a recovery exercise with five players. I took them to the gym area within the Olympic village and there was a French female judo team training in one corner, a Russian female gymnast in another, some boxers in another and ourselves. Our players just stood there with their mouths open and I couldn’t get their attention for love nor money. They're athletes putting their legs where they shouldn’t, you know? It was incredible. And just to see the focus from these people that were all there doing a diverse amount of sport was really incredible. You’d walk in where they had a multitude of running machines, and there was a queue four deep to get on a running machines in there. You might have a Turkish power lifter waiting to get on and just behind him, a 4'3" athlete, you know? It was quite bizarre. Someone described it to me as the ‘fittest freak show in the world’. What a wonderful experience.
I had an international career that spanned 12 years and only managed to get to one world finals and that was after two years of international football. Looking back on it now, for English football, it probably was the catalyst for the Premier League and the catalyst for a new era. In some ways, for a lot of people in England, it rekindled their love for the game. The game had ticked along, we had some crowd problems in the 80s, stadiums weren’t great and we had a European ban and there was a lot of negativity around England and English football. I’ll put it this way: we came back to the United Kingdom having reached a semi-final and there were a quarter of a million people waiting to greet us. Now this is for a team that was beaten in the semi-finals. I don’t think that would happen in any other country in the world.
We still miss a trick in failing to give our young players enough tournament experience before they step on the big stage at international level. I think that’s something that holds us back big time. I think other nations in the world do that a lot better that we do. I think we have a clutch of probably 40 players, that many to pick from, and whittle it down to 23. We have some exciting talent, but I wonder how much tournament experience these young, exciting talents have actually got to perform on the big stage when the pressure’s on. It’s a wide-open tournament this year. I don’t think the big teams in Europe are performing that well. The European Championship is open and it’s about who hits form on the day. You know Germany will be strong, and it will be the team that’s had their youth players at major tournaments that will go on to lift the trophy.