Not so Great Britain
It was once a topic reached for in desperation by a newspaper needing to fill space or a radio phone-in with a spare hour, but Team GB is now a temporary reality. Playing as a one-shot deal at London 2012 is likely to be remembered as a curio, judging by the leaden opening performance against Senegal. They underwhelmed in an Old Trafford atmosphere that was below the level of one of Manchester United's early-season Carling Cup outings. History was made in subdued fashion on a summer evening that dripped with a sense of unfamiliarity among an unusual mix of both players and fans.
Old Trafford was all but sold out, Manchester's Metro crammed to its Perspex windows by fans eager to get an early taste of the Olympic spirit. There was a significant amount of GB merchandise being worn by fans. This was perhaps not so surprising considering the popularity of rugby union's British and Irish Lions, who inspire fans from all over the isles to tour the southern hemisphere, or the way that so many get behind Andy Murray as he struggles to break his Grand Slam duck.
And then there is the fact that not every Englishman is fully English, such is the mix of Scottish, Irish and Welsh blood across the four countries. The sense of national identity is shakiest in the United Kingdom's largest nation.
It was unfortunate, however, that the concept of Great Britain was also seized by a section of supporters who are hardly welcome in Manchester, considering the antics that marred the city's hosting of the UEFA Cup in 2008. Rangers FC, or whatever they are now called, are the team most associated with the Union Jack, and there was the unedifying sight and sound of some rather distasteful songs being performed by an unhealthily vocal contingent. What relevance does "Ten German Bombers" have in 2012? And do Rangers really do what they want, as the ditty suggests? If so, why are they not in the SPL? Such small-minded idiocy has no place at an Olympics.
Even regulars at Old Trafford were greeted by an unusual matchday experience. On approach to the ground, spectators were asked to put the contents of their pockets into clear plastic bags, and those with a bag were then sent to the haughtily-named 'Baggage Resolution Centre'. Bags were 'resolved' by being emptied onto a table, then filled again, then wrapped in a clear polythene bag by some rather sheepish staff members. The task was carried out with typical Mancunian wryness. Only a resolved bag - wrapped in plastic - would be let into the stadium, where another shock greeted the old stagers. There were to be no pies on sale, a state of affairs completely against the sacrosanct routine of the British football supporter. Team GB's competitive re-entry would be watched with grumbling stomachs.
For two decades, 'Ten Englishmen plus Ryan Giggs' was the joke cracked - mostly by Englishmen - about the possible make-up of a Great Britain team. While Giggs was present to take his place in the team's first competitive outing since 1971, an English sense of superiority is not what it once was. If, for example, Joe Allen was available, would Jordan Henderson have gone to Euro 2012? That wouldn't have happened if Brendan Rodgers was picking the team.
Yet Rodgers' Northern Irish compatriots are not represented, and neither are any Scots. "No Becks, No Jocks, No Irish," said one wag when Stuart Pearce's 18-man selection was announced and David Beckham's omission was confirmed. The reasons for Caledonian and Hibernian absence are lost in the mire of football politics, though the six counties of Ulster might struggle to produce a worthy candidate. Scotland would seem to be similarly deficient, but Darren Fletcher, as an overage player, might have been a good fit had circumstances been different.
Pearce is looking to find a formula in a short time, and he didn't look capable of it in his team's opening match. Great Britain mirrored England's lack of creativity, with many players seeming to be in pre-season mode. Tom Cleverley, a young man seeking to prove he is footballer rather than brand, disappointed in midfield. Danny Rose looked an odd selection throughout. Daniel Sturridge was well off what was hardly a breakneck pace, which may be understandable considering his recovery from meningitis, but he looked nowhere near capable of landing a place ahead of Chelsea's now-stellar midfield line-up of playmakers.
Of the 'overage' players, Micah Richards was uncomfortable in central defence and was culpable for Moussa Konate's equaliser. Pearce and Richards have been associated since their time together at Manchester City, and the defender was the man called up instead of Beckham to play in a position in which he is rarely employed at Manchester City. A selection on which the coach has staked his reputation thoroughly underperformed.
Two ageing Welshman completed the trio. Craig Bellamy buzzed in his usual style, got the goal and should have been granted a penalty after a mid-air assault by Ciss which caused his eventual withdrawal. Ryan Giggs wore an armband so large that John Terry would blush in its company, and strolled around a turf he has played on for years with the air of a man whose childish pursuit has overtaken him, like a member of a rock band getting a little too old for its look.
Pearce's team lacked pace, verve and tactical versatility - enough to throw up concerns about them progressing to the knock-out rounds, let alone 'medalling', to adopt the word used in Olympic circles for an athlete achieving gold, silver or bronze.
Next opponents United Arab Emirates had looked decent against Uruguay in the match that preceded GB's outing, while a glance at the performance of Brazil against Egypt had many reaching for foregone conclusions about the eventual gold medallists. It already looks as if football will be recalled as a mildly diverting footnote to London 2012 in its host country.