Rumbling along quietly along in the background, the ongoing argument over whether a Great Britain team should take part in the 2012 London Olympics has been one of the slow-burning debates within British football over the last half-decade or so, but this debate ignited this afternoon after a series of statements, made in turn by the British Olympic Association, the Football Association, the Scottish Football Association and the Football Association of Wales, which already seems likely to turn into a full-blown argument. Andy Hunt, the BOA’s chief executive, was reported at the weekend feeling “very positive” that an agreement could be reached between the four constituent national associations and the BOA in order to allow a single team to represent Britain at the games. Today, though, such “positivity” couldn’t feel further away.
The reservations of the FAW and the SFA are well-known and understandable. They are concerned that this could be used as leverage to force a merger of the four associations by FIFA. Whilst such a scenario playing out would be highly unlikely (and why, critics of this idea would argue, would FIFA wait for an excuse to do this if they wanted to that much anyway?), critics have hardly been appeased by soothing (and, at times, somewhat contradictory – after all, this is FIFA that we’re talking about, here) statements from FIFA on the subject.
Perhaps the elephant in this particular room, though, is the perpetual presence of all four British associations on FIFA’s International Football Advisory Board. The IFAB determines the laws of the game, and was founded in 1886. When FIFA founded in 1904, it declared that it would adhere to the rules laid down by the IFAB and this peculiarly anachronistic state of affairs continues to exist today. There are eight seats on the IFAB (the other four are held by FIFA, although FIFA doesn’t “own” the IFAB – if anything, they defer to it), and six are required to make any change to the laws of the game. This gives the four home nations some degree of power (some might argue their last remaining vestiges of power) within world football, and many within FIFA would likely wish to revoke this continuing privilege. Could a British team at the 2012 Olympic Games give FIFA the mandate to end this anachronism, and could this be getting closer to the real reason why the SFA and the FAW have such cold feet about a one-off tournament which is unlikely to be too high on the list of priorities of many supporters in any of the home countries come next autumn?
No matter what soothing noises have been made, however, those implacably opposed to such a team have not had their concerns assuaged, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there is little that could ever have been said that might have turned such people around. This, however, pales in comparison with the extraordinary events of this afternoon, which have seen – some might say, very much in keeping with the preparations for next year’s games – a fiasco emerge from a a pile of press statements. The BOA issued a press release which suggested that all was sweetness and light between the four associations, stating that:
“The landmark announcement is being made today by the British Olympic Association (BOA), which has reached an agreement with The Football Association (FA) that will enable Team GB to compete in both men’s and women’s football at home in London 2012.”
Before going on to add that:
“The FA has consulted with its partner Associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in developing the player-selection criteria and timeline. All four Associations have received a written assurance from the Secretary General of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international federation for football, that participation in the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament will in no way compromise their autonomy and independence for other FIFA-sanctioned tournaments, nor will it have any impact on their positions of leadership within the FIFA governance structure.”
The response of the IFA, the FAW and the SFA has been predictably furious. Phil Pritchard of the FAW stated that, We are not part of any agreement. The FA have no authority to speak on our behalf – they do not represent Wales whatsoever and that’s a fact. We have not discussed this at any time recently”, while George Peat of the SFA stated that, “I am absolutely astounded that they have put out this statement. I know nothing about any such agreement and we want nothing to do with this tournament”. The problem with both of these statements, however, is one of semantics. The statement released by the FA and the BOA don’t make any reference to “agreement” having been reached with the SFA and FAW. They only mention having “consulted” with them. Ultimately, the FAW and the SFA have no legal powers – short of refusing to select any players that do take up the option to play in the tournament – to prevent their players from taking part.
The question, therefore, is one of whether both the spokesmen of the FAW and the SFA have misinterpreted (whether wilfully or in the heat of the moment) the statements put out by the BOA and the FA. There are 1.7m tickets going on sale for the Olympic competition on Friday, and the BOA and the FA may well be concerned – whether rightly or wrongly, but that is a different matter altogether – that, without the guarantee of a British team taking part, sales would be sluggish at best. They only need look at the banks of empty seats that accompanied several matches in which England and Scotland weren’t involved at the 1996 European Championships to, perhaps, break out in a cold sweat at the thought of what may happen next year. It is not a comment on way that this has been handled (and, if the hypothesis above has anything going for it, it was badly – arguably crassly – worded, to say the least) to understand the motives behind why it was made, when it was made.
So, it looks as if there will be a Great Britain team at the 2012 Olympic Games, and it looks as if there is little that the FAW, the SFA and the IFA can do about it. Whether this is a matter of misterpretation, misrepresentation or anything else, yet again the 2012 London Olympics is leaving a sour taste in the mouth, and it is tempting to wonder whether any aspect of it that will go ahead without some sort of argument breaking out, whether over ticket sales arrangements, a British football team or who will eventually be handed the keys to the stadium once everybody has packed up and gone home. As such, it is starting to feel as if that moment cannot come soon enough.
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