GLASGOW, Scotland – More than 400 miles from center stage, the coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team leaned toward the microphone and gave her own musical opening to the Olympic Games.
“Have a little faith in me,” sang Pia Sundhage, channeling John Hiatt in perfect pitch – complete with a soulful flourish at the end.
The competitive portion of the London Games begins today, two days before the opening ceremony and far removed from the nonstop Olympic freneticism of the British capital. Soccer is one of two sports that starts early – archery is the other – because the extra days are needed to play a sufficient slate of games that doesn’t wear out the players.
The Americans start group play against France at historic Hampden Park, the only Scottish venue for the Summer Games. One can barely walk 20 feet in London without noticing something that has to do with the Olympics, but the buzz in Glasgow just isn’t the same.
Some 37,000 fans are expected for the U.S.-France, Colombia-North Korea doubleheader in the 52,000-seat stadium, but organizers say about 80 percent of the tickets were freebies given to schools and local clubs because women’s soccer isn’t much of a draw in these parts.
The two-time defending champion Americans will have to make the gold-medal game to be assured of playing in London, and they won’t be attending Friday’s opening ceremony because they have an afternoon game against Colombia in Glasgow the next day.
“It’s too much on the body and the mind to fly back and forth. The focus is on the games and that’s the most important thing,” captain Christie Rampone said.
Starting early means a quicker end to the agonizing wait, which is a good thing for the Americans. They’ve become a bit antsy.
“You can feel the tension start to rise,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “It’s a good, positive energy, and people are going into tackles harder. It’s like ‘unleash the beast.’ We’re waiting for somebody to unleash us.”
France finished fourth at last year’s World Cup after giving the Americans a scare in the semifinals and is riding an remarkable 17-game winning streak.
Even though the U.S. is considered the gold medal favorite, it’s not inconceivable to see an early upset that throws the tournament wide open.
“It won’t be that easy for the USA to win against us,” France coach Bruno Bini said. “It will be a really tough match.”