PtG Article 01.06.2008

National team or National teams? British Olympics football may return to London 2012

This summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing is being bushwhacked by politics as demonstrators use every chance to hijack the world’s biggest sporting event and highlight problems in Tibet. Many demonstrators would like to see Tibet participate in Beijing and the next Olympics in London in 2012 looks likely to get tied up in another political wrangle

(Previously published in the May 2008 edition of All Sports Magazine - )

This summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing is being bushwhacked by politics as demonstrators use every chance to hijack the world’s biggest sporting event and highlight problems in Tibet.Many demonstrators would like to see Tibet participate in Beijing and the next Olympics in London in 2012 looks likely to get tied up in another political wrangle.

In London, the issue will not be about a country that many accept no longer exists in a political sense but one that most certainly does and will be hosting the 2012 Games. Great Britain participates as a single country in most sports except the world’s oldest and most popular – football. The only time that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales ever managed to unite on the football field was for the Olympics.

London’s success in winning the bid for the 2012 Games in 2005 brought about the prospect of that team returning and has started an argument that looks likely to persist for the next four years.

The formation of the four Home Nation football associations unions pre-dates the modern Olympics and even FIFA itself. The English FA was founded in 1863, Scotland’s association was founded a decade later, the Football Association of Wales in 1876 and the Northern Irish board in 1880. FIFA was founded in 1904 – eight years after the first modern Olympics.

In those days, the Olympics was focused on athletics and football did not appear until 1908. London was also the host that year and Great Britain romped off with the title, beating Sweden 12-1, the Netherlands 4-0 and Denmark 2-0 in the final but an issue that would eventually kill the team was emerging – professionalism. The Olympics was an amateur sport but football in Britain was already professional by this time. The GB football team of amateurs held onto the trophy four years later in Stockholm with a 4-2 win against Denmark again in front of 25,000 people. World War One intervened and at the next tournament in Antwerp, the slow decline of the team began with a 3-1 first round defeat to Norway.

Disputes with FIFA and the Olympics over professionalism and football missing out on the Los Angeles games in 1928 meant the GB team did not re-appear until 1936 in Berlin. At what became known as the Hitler Games, China were beaten 2-0 in the first round but GB lost 5-4 to Poland in the quarter-finals. War intervened again but for the next Games in 1948, there was a return to London, where a team managed by the legendary Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby made the semi-finals and narrowly lost out to Denmark for the bronze medal in austere post-War times unimaginable today.

“I remember that we used to go to the matches at Wembley on the tube,” recalls Scottish defender Angus Carmichael, now 84. That was to prove a final glory. Four years later in Helsinki, the team were humiliated in a 5-3 first round defeat to Luxembourg. By 1956 internal disputes between the Home Nations meant that a team of Englishmen went to Melbourne, where the side lost 6-1 in the second round to Bulgaria.

A fully British team qualified for the Rome Olympics in 1960 but went out in the group stage and that was the end. The Soviet countries, where players were kept nominally amateur by ruses such as jobs in the armed forces, dominated the tournament and Great Britain’s amateurs were sidelined.

For the next three years, the team were eliminated in the qualifiers under the management of Charles Hughes, the much-derided guru of the long ball. When amateurism was abolished in Britain in 1974 and the game went professional at all levels, the team was quietly killed off as the Olympics remained amateur.

There was little protest as the four Home Nations wanted to protect their own independent status that was secured in 1947. Back then FIFA had been left broke by the war years and a lack of matches so the Home Nations put out a GB professional team against a Rest of the World XI at Wembley.

That match raised £35,000 for FIFA’s finances and the Home Nations’s independent status was written in stone with a guaranteed FIFA vice president’s position, which rotates between the Home Nations. The Home Nations FAs also have lucrative positions on UEFA and FIFA committees and while other countries occasionally question why the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give the country its full name) has four teams, these queries are usually batted away - until now. Soon after London won the 2012 bid, talk of a revived team began.

As hosts, Great Britain would not need to enter the qualifiers but outside of England there is little enthusiasm. Scotland and Wales immediately refused to participate without written commitment from FIFA supreme Sepp Blatter that joining a Great Britain team would not harm their independent status.

The Northern Ireland FA are sitting on the fence but the fans made their position clear in 2006, when a No Team GB campaign was launched by the Football Supporters Federations in England and Wales , the Association of Tartan Army Clubs from Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Green and White Army association.

Campaign spokesman Tam Ferry says: “Any recognition of a GB football team will lead to more pressure from the International Football community to merge under one team, with one FA and with single membership of FIFA and UEFA."

The English FA is in a difficult position politically as, although they essentially administered the old team, the British Olympic Association has to enter the side and plans to go ahead regardless. Blatter has been unwilling to provide the written guarantees that Scotland and Wales want but in March 2008, said: “They should enter only a team composed of players from England. This will then not provoke a long and endless discussion of the four British associations.”

In the final qualifiers for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, only one nonEnglishman – Scotsman Bill Currie – played over the two legs against Bulgaria, which produced a 5-1 aggregate defeat. An English GB team would be fitting but could be scuppered by the Olympic football tournament starting less than a month after Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine.

If the four Home Nations emulate their qualifying campaign for Euro 2008, when not one team qualified, that would not be a problem but no-one in British football wants to press ahead on the basis of failure – certainly not new England boss, Fabio Capello. GREAT BRITAIN 2012

If Great Britain does manage to unite for the 2012 Olympic Games football tournament, the hosts could have one of the most star-studded and eagerly anticipated teams in world football.

  • The Olympic football competition is restricted to U-23s but in four years time, players such as Arsenal’s Theo Walcott could be established in the full England side and still be eligible for team GB.
  • Another player who could also just sneak into that age bracket is Wayne Rooney, who would be 23 on October 24 2012.
  • Other players across the British Isles that would also be eligible would include Welsh starlet Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur.
  • Who would take the three over-age places is anybody’s guess? If the four Home Nations fielded a joint team, that could include some of the world’s biggest stars from Michael Owen and David Beckham – only 36 in 2012 - to Scotland’s Alan Hutton and Craig Gordon.
  • Could the seemingly evergreen Ryan Giggs of Wales and Manchester United make the Olympics his swansong? Would David Healy be able to replicate his amazing scoring record for Northern Ireland in a Great Britain shirt?
  • Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been mooted as manager but only the next four years will tell if he gets the chance to answer these questions.