Athletes put useless footballers in the shade – but for how long?
While Team GB was racking up six golds, our footballers were flunking penalties once again
SIX WEEKS before the start of the London Olympics a survey found that 14 per cent of Britain's little boys dream of becoming professional footballers when they grow up, while 11 per cent imagine themselves becoming pilots and seven per cent soldiers. Not one expressed a desire to cycle, run, row or perform extraordinary feats on a pommel horse.
Now? After a week of mind-blowing performances by British athletes there is a feel-good factor coursing through the nation's veins the like of which hasn't been felt since 1966.
That was the year, of course, when England won the World Cup, the country's one and only success in a football tournament. Since then it's been one miserable anti-climax after another on the football field. Even on Sensational Saturday, as Team GB racked up six gold medals in its most glorious Olympics day in over a century, the footballers were once again under-performing.
No matter that it was a British team, as opposed to an English one - the outcome was all too familiar: beaten by South Korea in a penalty shootout. Coming just five weeks after England had suffered a similar fate against Italy in the quarter-finals of the European Championship it confirmed the country's reputation as bottlers par excellence when it comes to spot-kick sudden death.
The defeat means Team GB's footballers can slink back to their day jobs, earning more money in a season than the vast majority of athletes in the Team GB squad will earn in a career.
Twelve days from now the 2012-13 Premier League kicks off, and while there's no doubting the drama it will bring, there'll also be the ugly side of sport on show.
Last season ended with the former England captain John Terry in the dock accused of racially abusing a fellow player. Terry was acquitted of calling Anton Ferdinand a "f***ing black c***" though his reputation was hardly enhanced as a result of the trial.
Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez had no such luck, however, receiving an eight-match ban for calling Manchester United's Patrice Evra a "negro". Then there was the hissy fit thrown by Carlos Tevez which resulted in the Manchester City striker sitting out most of the season, not to mention Joey Barton's assault on three City players on the last day of the season. I haven't the space to mention the diving, shirt-pulling and devious attempts to get fellow professionals sent off.
Contrast that with what we've seen in the last few days. Who will ever forget the sight of Mo Farah embracing his young daughter moments after he had won the 10,000m on Saturday night? Or Jessica Ennis standing on the podium as the Union Flag was raised in honour of her victory in the heptathlon, her eyes wet with tears of happiness.
Few images of these wonderful Olympics will encapsulate better the joy of competing than the look on Katherine Copeland's face as she and Sophie Hosking crossed the line first in the final of the women's lightweight double.
"We just won the Olympics!" screamed the 21-year-old Copeland. Apparently the second thing she said was: "We're going to be on a stamp!" - a reference to the Royal Mail's promise to honour every Team GB gold medal winner with his or her own stamp.
It was a great idea to celebrate our Olympians in such a way. Weeks from now, when the sports pages are filled with little else but football, the public will still be reminded of the efforts of Pendleton, Rutherford, Wiggins, Copeland and Co.
"Inspire" has been the buzzword among British athletes at these Olympics. Jessica Ennis said the day after her golden performance, "Hopefully we are inspiring a new generation and it'll have a knock-on effect for the next few years."
It would be nice to think that in the 2020 Olympics there will be a new golden generation who took their cue from what they witnessed eight years earlier.
For that to happen, however, the government has to start investing in grassroots sport. David Cameron might have bewailed the fact recently that the majority of Team GB are privately-educated but it was his party that began selling off school playing-fields in the 1980s, a policy continued by New Labour. It's estimated that 30,000 pitches disappeared between 1992 and 2005.
How can a child from Camden or Carlisle dream of emulating Andy Murray or Jessica Ennis when so many state schools offer barely any sport for its pupils?
Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, London Mayor Boris Johnson says: "There will now be overwhelming political pressure to encourage more competitive sport in all schools."
The government would be foolish to ignore the pressure. As one paper after another has pointed out, the 2012 Olympics are unifying the country in a way not seen for years. They may also be turning children away from football and towards other sports that are less rewarding financially but far more rewarding spiritually.
What chance a few little boys at least dreaming of being Bradley Wiggins rather than Wayne Rooney?