The forthcoming Olympic Games and whether a united “British” team should be allowed to play in the competition has reopened one off British football’s oldest debates. Jason LeBlanc takes a look at the history of this fractious state of affairs.
The subject of a unified British team partaking in next summer’s London Olympics has been broached on this site before, but with the Euro 2012 qualifier between Wales and England featuring some players that would compete together if their associations—along with those of Scotland and Northern Ireland—agreed to the matter, it feels prescient to gloss over the matter again. Further, with former IFA president Robert Boyce recently calling upon FIFA to set out concrete assurances an Olympic Team Great Britain would not threaten the independence of the Home Nations going forward, it is a topic that is being revived. Before plowing forward, though, let’s go back to some of the historical origins of this sticky wicket.
Try not to snore too loudly when you fall asleep midway.
When English FA Secretary Sir Stanley Rous handed over the till from the 1947 “Match of the Century” to FIFA, he purchased a unique position for the Home Nations that still exists today. Donating the £35,000 to the cash-strapped international organization—which when adjusted using RPI amounts to over £1 million today—Rous bought the preservation of the 4 independent football associations along with a permanent seat on FIFA’s Executive Committee. Squeezing even more blood from the FIFA turnip, Rous also maintained the Home Nations’ power on the International Football Association Board whereby Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England each kept its vote regarding the laws of the game whilst the rest of the world’s associations were lumped into FIFA’s lone vote. Despite the best teams in international football no longer hailing from the British Isles but instead on the continent or south of the equator, the Home Nations retain what many critics see as a disproportionate amount of influence at the highest levels of world football administration.
Well, that is everything except when it comes to winning World Cup bids.
Following the return of the Home Nations to FIFA’s flock – along with Rous’ gift – a joint Great Britain squad did entertain a couple international friendlies and enter Olympic tournaments as well. The 1948 London Games saw a British team of semi-amateurs from all four associations managed by Matt Busby finish just out of the medals in 4th place. Subsequent squads in the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympics included the great English amateur Jim Lewis, but with mostly all-English amateur players playing against other nations’ World Cup squads, none of these teams ever made it beyond the opening round. Teams competing for the 1964 and 1968 games didn’t even escape the preliminary rounds, so that by the time qualification for the 1972 Munich Games came about, the shock 1-0 victory over Bulgaria was not enough encouragement to keep fighting the good fight. After that plucky squad of amateurs fell out in the return leg at Bulgaria’s home stadium, a united British team has not been seen since.
With the dissolution of the amateur footballer rules in 1974, the FA effectively ended any further Olympic forays under the umbrella badge of Great Britain. As the Olympic teams of the previous decades had been organized by the English, no other Home Nation sought to pick up the torch and continue the movement. After all, by the 1970s and 1980s all four associations were fighting separately for their international fortunes against a much larger pool of world talent in World Cups and the increasingly-relevant European Championships. When Sports Minister Tony Banks even suggested a merger of the Home Nations to challenge for both FIFA World Cups and Olympic gold medals in 1999, the idea was so thoroughly rejected north of the border some Scottish MPs questioned whether it meant England was trying to go back on the issue of devolution. Needless to say, politics outside the world of football throughout the 1990s and 2000s largely prevented any other mentions of a United Kingdom team competing in an official tournament, but as 2012 approaches, the issue must be addressed.
When Wales and Scotland failed to even show up for a meeting with the British Olympic Association (BOA) in 2006 to discuss fielding a united team ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, the BOA sent only a women’s team as no agreement could be met for the men. With Britain hosting the Summer Olympics next year, however, it is guaranteed a spot in the games and all signs point to some team sporting the Union Jack being there. After all, how could Britain not field male and female athletes on its home grounds in a sport it created? The same dim view Wales and Scotland had of the Olympic movement back in 2006 remains today though, as there is a “gentleman’s agreement” amongst the Home Nations that the BOA should call upon only English players to represent Great Britain in London. The SFA, FAW, and IFA will still take no part in competing with the English under that flag.
Boyce has fanned the flames a bit on that agreement in his recent remarks, noting that legally the BOA could still select players outside the FA for Team GB. With Welshmen Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey seemingly interested in accepting a call-up if offered, the FAW will be faced with a dilemma—block those lads’ going and risk legal action from the BOA or cross their fingers and hope FIFA doesn’t take it as a signal the Home Nations should be merged? As the previous article on this site pointed out, FIFA has had decades to decide if it wanted to force a merger of the Home Nations and opted to honor their independence. If the 2012 Olympics are really just a “one-off” arrangement, then what are Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland so worried about? Great Britain did the same thing in 1948 and nothing happened to the associations. Why not end the acrimony and allow it again?
What might be worrying the SFA, FAW, and IFA is that FIFA has changed since that team led by Busby took to the pitch in 1948. While the Home Nations were relatively secure from FIFA machinations while its presidency resided with Englishman Arthur Drewry and then Rous himself through the 1950s to the 1970s, the same cannot be said under the tenures of João Havelange and Sepp Blatter. Trust in Blatter is so low these days, his written assurances to Scotland and Wales in 2008 might just as well have been written in invisible ink on toilet paper. His verbal guarantee in March 2011 that there would be no FIFA sanction if the four associations played under one banner is in stark contrast to informal comments he made back in 2009 that a Team GB would indeed put the Home Nations in jeopardy. Without the FIFA Executive Committee issuing a formal decision that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would not lose their independence if a truly unified team was fielded in 2012, the associations likely feel Sepp Blatter is telling them the sky is clear and blue when in fact it’s cloudy and grey.
If incoming VP Boyce can lean on FIFA ExCo to produce a clear statute on the matter, it might be a boon for the British Isles to finally win another international tournament. Excepting England’s 1966 World Cup win, Great Britain’s been most successful in the Olympics—having won three of the first four tournaments. Granted, these were in the early 20th century with only few teams participating, but future prospects for international glory for any of the Home Nations appears grim. Northern Ireland and Wales already appear buried in their Euro 2012 qualification groups while Scotland face a daunting task in Group I with Spain and the Czech Republic above them. If anyone is optimistic enough to believe any side other than Brazil has a chance in World Cup 2014, don’t break his heart by telling him Santa Claus isn’t real. With the 2012 Games on home soil and being played in venues such as Hampden Park and Millennium Stadium in addition to the English sites, a truly all-British squad playing before these fans could give Team GB a distinct home advantage.
Otherwise, an all-English side playing in Glasgow might be a decided underdog in the stands.
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