It’s summer, it’s a leap year, and that can only mean one thing: the Olympics are right around the corner. The Olympics are a time when people take a look at sports they never normally would give a second thought to – suddenly, everyone is an expert at the triple jump, archery or gymnastics. To the athletes competing in these sports, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of their career, providing them with a stage in front of the world that no other event could match.
The approaching of any Olympic Games also signals the start of something else: the attempt of the Football Association and British Olympic Association to revive the idea that there ought to be a ‘Team GB’ football team participating at the Olympics. What is incredible is that this ridiculous idea hasn’t been put to bed yet.
When we look at the men’s Olympic football competition, it’s quite easy to see that it is nothing more than a hyped-up youth tournament. With the exception of three permitted over age players per squad, it’s a competition between U23 teams. This isn’t some quirk of Olympic rules to maintain some sense of nostalgia and amatuerism, it’s a deliberate design by the footballing authorities to keep the Olympics from ever becoming a serious competitor to the true showpiece event of global football: the FIFA World Cup. When we think about what might have to be given up in order to attain an Olympic team, we really do have to remember that, in the men’s competition at least, the tournament is clearly a second-rate one.
A unified GB team would be an artificial creation in the world of football, detached from the history that has been embedded into fans from their first glimpse at the game
And we certainly do have to think about what may have to be given up, because it turns out to be something that matters an awful lot to an awfully large number of people: our footballing independence.
England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have always had their own distinct football identities, and they all have their own stories of greatness from over the years. They are diverse, from England’s 1966 triumph to tales of Wales punching above their weight in Sweden and more recently France, yet they all have one thing in common: none of the stories are about triumphs under the banner of a ‘British’ team. No unified team for the UK has ever competed at a World Cup or European Championship. A unified GB team would be an artificial creation in the world of football, detached from the history that has been embedded into fans from their first glimpse at the game.
Still, to this I hear cries of “it’ll only be for the Olympics!” This is an intriguing point, because there’s absolutely no evidence to support the fact that this will be the case. Those who pointed to Sepp Blatter’s assurances are a funny bunch, because they were also the first to accuse him of corruption. If rhetoric alone from authority can always be taken at face value, perhaps we should question those in the FA and BOA who described London 2012 as a “one-off” and why the BOA declared it had secured an “historic agreement” that simply never existed. Furthermore, any statement from a FIFA President on this topic doesn’t really carry any weight, for it is FIFA’s Congress, not its executive, that carries the responsibility for suspending members. FIFA’s Congress has, historically, displayed some scepticism at the arrangement of the Home Nations, and to a degree they are right in doing so. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each possess disproportionate power in FIFA – a guaranteed Vice Presidency, plus a vote each on the IFAB (which controls the Laws of the Game) whilst the rest of FIFA are limited to 4 between them – and so any display of playing together likely will raise questions amongst the masses of other FIFA members: why is it ok for them to play together when it suits them, yet they still remain separate in internal FIFA politics?
Sure, there may be some benefits to playing in the Olympics, such as in the women’s game. The women’s Olympic football tournament is held in much higher regard than the equivalent male tournament, and it could act as a catalyst and inspiration to girls to engage more in sport. Yet, despite claims that the women’s game is free from the politics that are found in the men’s, it is fairly apparent that this would not be the case, for both genders ultimately answer to FIFA. When FIFA admits members, it doesn’t say “Gibraltar can play in the men’s game, but we think that your women would be better off representing Spain”. Both sides have to act in tandem, or Pandora’s box is still opened regardless.
There seems to be a view that Britain is purely ‘England plus a few others’, and until that idea is dispelled they will always attract resentment from the ‘others’
We have to consider that, whilst there could be a benefit from giving women’s football such a big stage, we also risk taking away opportunity from many women (as well as men) in the international game if we risk being amalgamated by the global authorities. Around three-quarters of those who currently get the chance to represent their country in some way, be it at a senior level or at U17, simply will not be able to do so if there is only one team for all four nations. Whilst handing the very best the opportunity to go to heights greater than ever before, we also snatch away at the chances of those that are slightly lower down.
Further, the whole incident simply reeks of a form of English arrogance. It is intriguing that the Football Association are considered to be in charge of football as far as the BOA are concerned, and this is reflected in the way that they ultimately brushed aside the legitimate concerns of the other associations for London 2012. Ironic is one word to describe this, as key concepts of the Olympic movement such as inclusivity were swept aside to allow a vanity project by an organisation that doesn’t represent anyone outside of the space between Southampton and Newcastle to go ahead. On the topic of women’s football, perhaps we just need to look at the headlines from when it was clear that GB wouldn’t compete, despite England having been in a position to qualify. A quick search turns up “Why England’s women’s soccer team won’t be playing at the 2016 Olympics“, “Anger as Lionesses denied chance to play for team GB“, and references to “Sampson’s side [being] denied the opportunity to build on their momentum in Rio“. What is the common denominator here? All of them take a purely England-centric view. There seems to be a view that Britain is purely ‘England plus a few others’, and until that idea is dispelled they will always attract resentment from the ‘others’. I can’t say that I am in any way disappointed that I have some degree of certainty about the future of my nation’s footballing status instead of being able to watch the English women’s football team catch Zika in Brazil.
Perhaps it’s time that the British Olympic Association takes a look at itself. Rejected by FSF representatives from all four nations, rejected by three of the four home associations, and ultimately rejected by FIFA for their failure to gain popular support, their idea of a Team GB football team currently lies in tatters. It’s time that they finally gave up on this exercise in selling merchandise under the guise of a type of patriotism that is alien to the sport, and in doing so stopped sowing the seeds of division between the four FAs.