Why it’s all kicking off over Team GB
Olympics bosses want a British soccer team for 2012, but the UK’s football authorities just don't want to play ball.
Where do you stand on the controversial issue of a Great Britain football team? Disgusted that the British Olympic Association is threatening the independence and proud traditions of the home football nations? Angered that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish associations are trying to thwart the Olympic dreams of their young players? Or, like me, do you want to be woken up when The Most Pointless Sporting Argument Ever is over?
If you’re wondering why the proposal for a unified British football team has caused such controversy, let me explain. There has never been a single UK football association. Instead, all four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have their own football associations. Each country is recognised by FIFA as a separate entity even though they are not sovereign nations. It’s one of the residual privileges enjoyed by the nation that invented the game. Although the Brits have minimal influence within FIFA, as the 2018 World Cup bid and the farcical presidential election demonstrated, all four UK nations are represented on the eight-member International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is the sport’s law-making body. The home nations also retain the right to appoint a FIFA vice-president. Although the English FA is keen on fielding a British team in the 2012 Games, the other national associations fear that their independence and FIFA privileges will be jeopardised as a result.
The debate took a farcical twist this week when the British Olympic Association (BOA) announced that an ‘historic agreement’ had been reached with all the home nations to field a Great Britain team at the Olympics. However, no sooner had the BOA made its announcement than the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland football associations angrily denied that any agreement had been reached. Oops! A collective statement issued by the dissenting associations said: ‘The Football Associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reiterate our collective opposition to Team GB participation at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, contrary to the media release issued by the BOA.’
To be honest, I don’t feel strongly either way if a Great Britain team is entered in the London Games. I’ll be curious to see what happens, I’ll grant you. But I won’t be painting my face red, white and blue or wearing a Union Jack novelty afro-wig. Allegiance to a football team doesn’t really work like that. Football allegiances are irrational and parochial. Most of us will put our clubs before our country. And as for Team GB, an artificial and transient entity which we have neither known nor craved, it’s unlikely that it will generate much enthusiasm amongst football’s traditional supporters.
The wretched state of Britain’s international football teams is another reason that there is unlikely to be huge enthusiasm for a GB team. There was a time when the prospect of a British football team, however fanciful, would have been a mouth-watering prospect. Imagine England’s 1966 squad augmented by George Best, Dennis Law, Jim Baxter and Jimmy Johnstone? By contrast, the best of British today – either at under-23 level or a senior team – isn’t going to scare the Germans, Spanish or Brazilians. It is likely that a GB football team will consist largely of English players plus Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and, er, to be honest I’m struggling to think of anyone else. Not exactly a dream team is it? It’ll take more than a Gareth Bale to transform England Under-21s, who were so uninspiring at the recent European championships, into Olympic medal contenders. The fact that Stuart Pearce has thrown his hat into the ring to manage the Olympic men’s team doesn’t really inspire much confidence either.
I’ve actually got a couple of tickets for the Olympic football. ‘Why bother?’ you might well ask. The reality is that I wanted athletics but thought I’d stand a realistic chance of getting some football tickets. Firstly, the stadiums are quite capacious and, secondly, I figured that there wouldn’t be huge demand for the football tournament. As it happens I was right. Football remains one of the few sports that haven’t sold out. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about football at the Olympics. Most fans aren’t really that bothered about it. If football was dropped from the Olympics roster altogether, we wouldn’t be up in arms. Olympic gold isn’t the biggest prize in the game. As football competitions go it’s regarded, quite rightly, as a novelty tournament. Indeed, most fans would struggle to name the football gold medallists at Beijing.
So, I’m indifferent to Team GB and pretty ambivalent about the tournament itself. But I’m still looking forward to watching some Olympic football. It’ll be a nice day out I reckon. It’s a chance to go to Wembley with the family and, if we’re lucky, see some stars of the future. Technically, I’d file it alongside the Europa League or the Women’s World Cup. I don’t really care who wins but, if it’s on TV, I’ll invariably watch it. The spectacle of people playing football, you see, plays havoc with my free will. It completely disables that segment of my brain which alerts me to the fact that there really are much more fruitful things I could be doing with my time. For all I know, I might end up watching Kazakhstan versus Western Samoa. But if the ball is round and the game lasts for 90 minutes, then count me in.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.