One of the more fascinating issues in the build up to London 2012 is the ‘will they/won’t they?’ question mark over the creation of a Great Britain football team to represent the whole country at the Olympic Games. I, for one would absolutely love to see a team with players in it from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and would thoroughly enjoy the process of selection and training, the inevitable dilemmas of which players are chosen, who gets to coach the team, and how the various individuals rub along together.
According to the media, a number of footballers have shown themselves to be enthusiastic about the project, with Welsh defender Gareth Bale, and England women’s captain Faye White expressing their interest. The issue would also make a great talking point in pubs and sitting rooms nationwide, as everyone seems to have an opinion - at least judging by the large number of comments to blogs on the subject. See BBC sports news correspondent Gordon Farquhar’s blog particularly at http://bbc.in/iFgwCG
The main problems though – almost inevitably - are national rivalries and insecurities, each of which open up a can of worms. It’s strange: whereas players from many different continents play happily together at club level (at least for the most part), the really fervent fans of the home nations, and more particularly the football associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different views about the chances of fielding a GB soccer team.
Why? There are a number of reasons; the most prominent of which is that the football associations fear for their own autonomy. And this has some basis in possibility. After all, what would happen if Team GB won the soccer gold medal at London 2012 and exhibited a set of transcendent football skills (no sniggering at the back)? There would inevitably be a call for the separate national teams to be disbanded and a GB team set up on a permanent basis, giving the trophy-starved national teams a real chance in global competition. However, this happy outcome, though it might please some of the fans, would be the worst case scenario for the associations themselves.
At some point in football history – i.e., before the setting up of the individual football associations - there might have been a chance for a GB team to become a reality, but once the English FA had appeared in 1863, the other home nations seem to have taken their cue, and progress continued on parallel rather than convergent lines. Of course, if we had known then what we know now about the huge significance and commercial importance of sport and winning, we might have sought to optimise our international chances then and there. However, in Victorian times, football’s status as a working class pastime, along with feelings about the déclassé nature of competitive sport itself rendered this impossible.
I remember well the Four Nations football competition which used to take place every summer in the close season (alas no longer). These were exciting matches, eagerly anticipated and hard fought, most particularly the Scotland/England clash. The fierce passions surrounding this competition give a strong clue, though, to the difficulties in creating a Team GB. Real antagonism to the other teams was expressed; just as home derbys are often very antagonistic in character in the Leagues. Clearly, the closer to home you get, the more intransigent people become. Why is this?
It’s a shame, though isn’t it, that the talk now is that we will be fielding an under 21 British team at London 2012? Nice for the lads playing, of course, but maybe not quite the same as seeing Rooney and Co step out for GB.
I’m really not sure whether this controversy actually carries over into the Paralympic sphere where there are two (5-a- side and 7- a-side) soccer competitions. It would be good to know. Maybe the Paralympians can set a sterling example.
Football culture: local contests, global visions editors Gerry P T Finn & Richard Giulianotti. London: Frank Cass, 1999.)
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2002.a.7443
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Duke, Vic. Football, nationality, and the state. Harlow: Longman, 1996.
London reference collections shelfmark: YK.1996.a.24119