CARDIFF, Wales -- Great Britain's soccer team has all the reason in the world to be the favorite entering the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Not only does Team GB have the home crowd on its side but in this very rare occasion in the United Kingdom, soccer isn't the main sport on everyone's mind. Unlike basketball where rosters feature the biggest names in the sport, each Olympic soccer squad is only allowed three players over the age of 23, making it in some ways feel more like an amateur competition.
With soccer being just a small part of the bigger event, there has been much less attention on Team GB during the Games as coach Stuart Pearce's makeshift squad moved into the knockout stage after finishing first in Group A ahead of Senegal, Uruguay and UAE. Olympic soccer is viewed well below the World Cup and European Championships, and with the less focus comes less pressure for the Brits.
"I think that's been good for us," said Pearce, who believes his team had time to gel during the group stage. “We know exactly the magnitude of what’s in front of us and we achieved by getting out the group what people outside our group expected of us.”
Team GB's men's squad was assembled special for these Olympic Games. Typically the four nations that make up the United Kingdom - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - compete individually in international competitions. Fourteen of GB's 18 players are from England with four from Wales, including Welsh forward Craig Bellamy who was chosen as an over-age player ahead of David Beckham.
All but three of Team GB's players play for clubs in the English Premier League, currently regarded by many as the world's best league, but the chemistry on the field has taken some time to develop. But despite a short time to prepare for the tournament followed by an uninspiring draw against Senegal in the opening game, Team GB finished first in its group with a 2-0-1 record.
"We have a scenario now where we have to advance further, and I think the players have gotten a taste of that,” Pearce said. “I think the players are excited by the challenge of it."
Soccer matches during the Olympics have been spread throughout the UK and many of the games not including the home team have been played in half-empty stadiums. Team GB has had the backing of locals and has managed to fill them up the biggest venues, including selling out Old Trafford in Manchester, Wembley Stadium in London and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Another sellout is expected in Cardiff against South Korea on Saturday.
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"The fact that we're the home side and the atmosphere that we can generate here, and we did generate here last night [against Uruguay at the Millennium Stadium], will be a real plus for us we hope," Pearce said on Wednesday. "Obviously the stadium is sold-out again and we feel the atmosphere is going to be cranked up once again from last night, so we're really looking forward to it. We have to make sure our performance matches the encouragement we get in the support."
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey, a Wales international, credits the local fans for pushing Team GB to 1-0 victory over Uruguay despite an enormous amount of pressure from the South Americans toward the end of the match.
"They got behind us," Ramsey said. "In the last 20, 25 minutes we were under the caution belt and I think they helped us get through that."
Now Team GB finds itself one win away from playing for an Olympic medal. In other major soccer tournaments a third-place finish would be considered a failure for a team entering the competition as an early favorite, but in the Olympics it counts toward the nation’s overall medal count.
“I could lie to you and say we just take one game in isolation but we know the magnitude of this and any of the teams in the quarterfinals at this stage want to advance to the semis because they know they’ll have two bites at a medal,” Pearce said. “I think that’s quite important for any of the teams.”