The British Olympic Association (BOA) last week said a “historic agreement” had been reached with the English Football Association over fielding teams at the 2012 Games. Great Britain were Olympic football champions in 1908 and 1912, but haven’t appeared since 1960 (though it attempted to qualify as recently as 1972). Good news then. It seemed differences had been sorted out, and a compromise found.
Or not. A collective statement from the other nations denied this was the case.
“No discussions took place with any of us, far less has any historic agreement been reached,” it said.
”We have been consistently clear in explaining the reason for our stance, principally to protect the identity of each national association. With that in mind, we cannot support nor formally endorse the approach that has been proposed by the Football Association.”
Their view is straight-forward. Football is autonomous for the home nations. The four countries have their own leagues and their own international teams. The Olympics is not considered a major football event, but people might use it to tell the four associations that they have to compete as Great Britain in other tournaments.
Maybe their stance is shaped by the presumption that the team would be a largely English one anyway. But what really annoyed them was the fact that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland FAs conceded some time ago for the right of the BOA to choose an Olympic team consisting of English players, but the BOA announcement last week appears to say that an agreement had been reached to choose players from all four nations. No such agreement exists, and it seems never will.
So what will the FA do? Pick just English players, or pick from all four nations and risk the wrath of other FA’s? Or perhaps just wait for players like Bale to publicly declare their availability and desire to play?
The squabble is an old one, that has rumbled on for many a year. Before London was chosen to host the Olympics, the BOA thought a British football team would be a good way to galvanize support for the bid, and provide an extra chance of a medal.
And yet as squabbles elsewhere constantly erupt over the difficulty in getting Olympic tickets, it seems that the biggest sport in the world will be the one that has the least appeal and the possibility of empty seats next year. It is a different debate however as to whether football should be there at all, but there is little doubt that despite what our football associations may say, this is a huge deal to a lot of players. Cameroon’s victory in 2000 is proof of that. But then when have the men in suits ever had the remotest idea of what players and fans think?
FIFA have said unequivocally that this will not change anything, so it seems the home nations’ distrust is misplaced. However, Sepp Blatter has sung to a very different tune in the past , saying in March 2008:
“If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympics, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team,” he said.
“If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency?
“This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.”
Blatter is of course here to stay for another four years, but wouldn’t be able to merge the Home Nations without huge support and an almighty struggle. These are football associations that existed long before FIFA did. Jack Warner has called for a GB team, but he is gone. This is one fight FIFA is very, very unlikely to pick.
The fact is I imagine other countries would prefer for the nations to stay separate. A Great Britain team with the likes of Bale and Ramsey would be stronger, after all. And what’s more, it hard for the Welsh to argue about autonomy when Swansea will play in next season’s Premier League, or the Scots to argue the same when Berwick Rangers play in the Scottish League, and rumours persist about Celtic and Rangers coming to play in England.
Some agree with the stance of the non-English FA’s. Gerry Hassan in the Guardian called the decision a farce.
“The existence of a Team GB isn’t just a threat to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish and their place on the global stage of world football, but the English, too. This could be a threat to all of us, our separate histories, traditions and teams, and for what?”
A total overreaction in my opinion – this is a football tournament for two weeks next year, not devolved parliaments, Bannockburn or the future of western civilization as we know it. A bit of perspective is needed. A one-off event, well almost anyway. It’s almost as if the four nations merging for every other sport in the Olympics doesn’t matter – but how is football different? The answer – it isn’t.
In some respects, what the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland FA’s think on the matter is irrelevant. If Gareth Bale wants to play in the Olympic team next year, then he can – they can’t stop him. More likely to stop him is his club, as we all know club managers will not want their players burnt out in the summer months – just look at how Jack Wilshere was pressured to pull out of the U21 squad last month. The competition runs from 26th July-11th August, though the early games are preliminaries. Thus players who play in the semi-finals and beyond will walk out of the Olympics and straight into a new domestic season.
Seeing a British team would be enjoyable in my opinion, and a novelty. Rugby teams manage to amalgamate the home nations. And as the host nation, Britain has an obligation to compete in every Olympic event (unless not of the required standard of course). I tend to look at things simply – many have tried to make this a political issue when at the end of the day it is about putting together a football team for a fortnight, and competing for a few medals. I will watch every England match keenly, as a fan of football, sport in general, and a follower of all Olympic events. I look forward to it greatly, whatever team is put out, and I will bet you the players will too, along with millions of other fans Though don’t get too excited just yet – the manager will probably be Stuart Pearce.