So, finally they are here. After seven years of counting down the days, the Olympic Games are no longer an expensive and controversial smudge on the horizon. Like, love or loathe them, few can deny the Olympics provide plenty of drama - not all of it sporting - and the Great Britain football team has been a particularly inflammatory subject in the protracted lead-up.
Much like the heroes in the recent Avengers Assemble movie, trying to convince the four Home Nations to join forces led to some pram-based toy flinging by the Scottish, Welsh and Irish Footballing Associations, all of whom were understandably concerned that they would henceforth forever be lumped together under the Union Jack in other international competitions. Thankfully, and presumably without the assistance of Scarlet Johansson in a cat-suit, the discussions were resolved peaceably, and on Thursday Team GB will play their first competitive match against Senegal.
The early indications are not entirely positive. Despite the home advantage, this team are less British bulldogs and more skittish underdogs; they were comprehensively humbled in Friday's friendly against a Brazilian side capable of much better, and at times looked like a team of virtual strangers... probably because they are a team of virtual strangers. All in all, Stuart Pearce has assembled a squad seemingly lacking in experience, technical proficiency and established patterns of communication. This would seem to be a recipe for disaster, yet history tells us otherwise, because these were the conditions that gave rise to Great Britain's most successful Olympic team, Sir Matt Busby's 1948 overachievers.
The comparisons between Pearce and Busby are perhaps unfair on the latter. Stuart Pearce has been working with England's young players for five years, gaining experience of international coaching and developing a strong working relationship with his charges. He was appointed the Team GB coach in October of last year, and has since had time to cast his eye over the options. Compared to Matt Busby, that has been a luxurious preparatory window. The Scotsman, conversely, had just won the FA Cup with Manchester United in April when he took up the coaching role with the British team. He almost quit on the spot when he discovered his squad had been picked for him. Regardless, Busby - who had organised footballing entertainment for the troops in WW2 - agreed to take on the challenge, despite having only two months to prepare.
He inherited a ragtag bunch of true amateurs; 11 Englishmen, 2 Welshmen, 2 Northern Irishmen and 7 Scots. Only the Scots had formerly met each other, having been recruited from the semi-professional Glasgow club Queen's Park, and immediately fractious hostility broke out amongst the various nationalities. This, however, was the least of the problems. While Stuart Pearce's side lack the chemistry a team generates over months of playing together, Busby's Brits were not even full-time footballers, and were still living on a rationed diet. Amidst the squad were Eric Lee, trying to train as a teacher; Denis Kelleher, a Northern Irish doctor and former escapee from a German POW camp; Angus Carmichael, a young veterinary student; Douglas McBain, a tax inspector; and Bill Amor, a policeman.
As Busby would later state in his autobiography: "In Britain, since Berlin, the policy has been to enter... [The Olympics], presumably on the assumption that it is better to have the Union Jack trampled into the turf than not to show the flag at all. I believe that is the only possible decision, even though every four years it exposes Britain footballer, clerks, footballer grocers and footballer pitmen to something akin to ridicule".
Busby turned to his Manchester United colleagues to knock this gaggle of also-rans into shape. The club's trainer, Tom Curry, began to put them through their paces, while even the FA Cup winning players agreed to surrender their holidays in order to help out. With the harsh economic realities of post-war Britain to contend with, many of the squad members had to sometimes vanish on the overnight train to return to their jobs and young families, with Douglas McBain a rare exception in opting to take six weeks unpaid leave from the Inland Revenue. The policeman, Bill Amor, was even badly bruised in the line of duty when he should have been doing keepy-uppies and squat thrusts. With technical progress slow, and team bonding divided between nationalities, Busby called an emergency session at a run-down hotel in Twyford, where they trained hard on a disused concrete tennis court.
Finally, it was time to pitch the players into battle against some sort of opposition. The Netherlands duly complied, and proceeded to kick the British amateurs up and down the pitch for 90 minutes. It was an inauspicious start, and there were murmurings of a tactical withdrawal from the competition, but Busby was cheered by the battling spirit on display. The players, meanwhile, had rather enjoyed their trip abroad, returning home to austerity Blighty with watches and luxuries smuggled in their pockets.
Once the Olympics finally arrived, in quintessentially austerity style, the players were housed in dilapidated RAF barracks at Uxbridge, where they whiled away the hours smoking ciggies provided by the Games' official sponsors, drinking Horlicks and mingling with foreign competitors, many of whom had been mortal adversaries just three years before. The Brits were used to rationing and were delighted when the American Olympic team brought steaks with them. The French, typically, were in a huff because their cases of wine had been impounded at customs.
This camaraderie clearly had a positive effect. With the home crowd cheering, and with a young Kenneth Wolstonholme's commentating on his first match for BBC TV, the team's first game delivered a stunning surprise in the shape of a 4-3 victory against those Dutchmen who had so unceremoniously floored them a fortnight before. This was followed by an even more unexpected result - Busby's boys managed to sneak a 1-0 win over the technically superior French. Alas, just as the public dared to dream, the luck of the draw pitted Team GB against Yugoslavia, a nation that had rather ingeniously recruited its international first team into the army, thus making them eligible as amateurs. These Balkan 'shamateurs' were far too gifted to be stopped, and Busby watched ruefully as his side went down to a courageous 3-1 defeat. As it was, the Yugoslavs would themselves be mugged in the Final by Sweden, who had done exactly the same thing.
This run of games left Busby's team in line for a third place play-off against Denmark. The prospect of an Olympic medal was surely tempting, but the steely-eyed Busby was proudly compliant when his captain, Bob Hardisty, stood up and revealed that the players had agreed that those who had yet to have a game would play, instead of the strongest team. It was a moment of pure sportsmanship, and Busby acceded. The result was perhaps inevitable. Britain were beaten 5-3, but had done the nation proud in overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. Sir Matt Busby later wrote in his autobiography "I did a job which I shall always regard as one of my best. Steering Manchester United to the championship of the First Division was child's play besides the problems of sorting out the winning team from spare-time footballers drawn from four different countries."
To this day, no fully British team has done better in the Olympics (Great Britain won in 1908 and 1912 with only English players). Given the quality on display in the Brazilian and Spanish teams, and the lack of preparation time afforded to him, Stuart Pearce may feel he is now reliving Busby's seemingly impossible challenge. While the cynics may write off his young team, the story of the Busby Brits may yet suggest an upset could be on the cards.
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