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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A Very British Olympics


Now that the Euros are behind us and England’s performances are disappearing from memory as quickly as the ball from their stewardship, it’s almost time for everyone to focus on the next group of unfortunates chosen to carry the expectations of a public starved of success, but renowned for lapping up any opportunity to overhype a sports match to within an inch of its life (and sometimes beyond). The Olympics are coming! Yay!

More like ‘Meh’. The very un-British sounding ‘Team GB’, on the football side at least, managed to pass largely under the radar as we concerned ourselves with the travails of the senior squad in recent weeks, the travails of Andy Murray in the last two weeks and whether or not John Terry is guilty of racially aggravated assault (ongoing. Still). Disabling the partisan feelings of those used to supporting one of the home nations might have quelled the enthusiasm somewhat.

Mind you, this was always going to be the situation, wasn’t it? The Scottish FA didn’t want to be involved from the outset. Neither did the Welsh. International teams are already struggling for love and affection in the face of overriding club loyalties between fans, leagues and in some cases, players. It’s a peculiar notion to ask all to unite behind a British football team, although in theory, with no other direct competition, it should be one of the easiest.

In true Magic Spongers fashion, there has been no straw poll, no Twitter survey and no – ahem – ‘research’ into this perception. It may be that over the next 17 days the huge hype machine will whirr into action around Stuart Pearce’s squad, as our preoccupied media finally finds the time to fit the squad in among David Beckham’s reaction to being left out of it.

And in true one-philanderer-roundly-abused-while-another-is-made-Team GB-captain fashion, it was far more fun in the olden days, with single standards, or as they were called back then, ‘standards’. The first Olympic football tournament in 1908 was organised by the English FA, operating even then with half an eye on bloody ‘legacy’, as it convinced the IOC to hold a tournament at the first London games (2012 will be the third). All players were amateurs, of course, because this was the Olympics, not some vanity project.

And the British team, though made up of Englishmen, actually won. THEY WON! And again in 1912. WON AGAIN! 1912! 100 YEARS OF HURT. DOUBLE-OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS! WE WANT OUR TROPHY BACK.

Also, brilliantly, there were 11 players in the squad. That was it. Normal service began in 1920 though, when the British lost in the first round having selected only amateur players, true to original intentions, while other countries selected the best players available. And this, way back in the 1920s, is apparently the last time the FA managed to act with integrity, withdrawing from FIFA (and the Olympics in 1924 and 1928) over the dispute that the Olympic competition should remain only for amateurs. The formation of the World Cup – which would be for ALL players, followed shortly after, and the Olympics remained solely for amateurs. A British side later made the quarters in 1936.

The popularity of the game on these shores would eventually serve to scupper the competitiveness of Team GB (God I hate that)’s forerunners – with professional leagues becoming bigger and more numerous, the gap in quality between amateurs and those paid to play the game increased. By contrast, nations with fewer, or less established professional leagues were still able to pick from a large pool of extremely capable footballers, while British sides were increasingly further away from the top of the game.

However, this does give rise to a brilliant story from the 1948 Games, also in London (home advantage clearly playing a sizeable role again), in which the British team were amateurs but their manager was a professional by the name of Matt Busby. Busby’s team of doctors, vets and teachers reached the semi-finals, but lost 3-1 to Yugoslavia before being defeated again in the bronze medal match by Denmark. Perhaps their greatest achievement, though, was to give rise to this, my new favourite article.

The call for the development of team work over individual brilliance – realising limitations, if you like – is ace. LEAVE IT TO HODGSON. LEAVE IT TO PEARCE – the latter for whom, it should be pointed out, matching Busby’s achievement with a squad of millionaires in Stella McCartney-designed Adidas shirts would be hailed a remarkable result. How times have changed.

The FA stopped entering a team into Olympic competition in 1974 when it changed how players were registered, for no apparent reason removing the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’. These days, that means that you, if registered for a club, are officially no different in the FA’s eyes to its captains, leaders and legends.*

This will be the first British team to compete at the Olympics since 1960. Which should be kind of exciting really, but for the toing and froing over which associations were prepared to take part – rendered largely meaningless by the eventual recognition that there were no legal grounds (or in fact, any grounds) on which British players from any of the home nations could be prevented from playing. Not that one would expect enthusiasm to be burning particularly fiercely in Scotland or Northern Ireland, as none of their players have been selected.

Sepp Blatter, in his inimitable style, didn’t particularly help matters either. The main problem the home nations had is that, as you probably are aware, a unified team would harm their statuses as individual competitors in Euro and World Cup tournaments. Blatter, for whom there is never any danger of contextualising thought getting in the way when more the more convenient ‘speak first, retract later’ policy will do, assured the home nations their status wouldn’t be affected. He then performed a U-turn the Lib Dems would have been proud of and declaring it was probably best for Britain to enter a team comprised only of English players, while also posing the vicious conundrum: “why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency?”


A poll on the BBC’s 606 website about the prospect of ‘Team GB’ (it gets inverted commas now), descended into a political debate (of sorts) before it had even started: “Let’s forget this idea before it even gets off the ground”, being the opening gambit. Dai Greene also (correctly) pointed out that it’s not like an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of the sport for footballers – indeed, Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy’s inclusion in the British squad appears to be as consolation for them never having qualified for a major tournament with Wales… logic suggesting that the least they could have done is included some Scots. Or David Healy.

Nevertheless, the BOA did eventually receive confirmation from FIFA’s ExCo that selecting players from different nations would not affect the sovereignty of the associations. And so the Great British team exists, like it or not. Alright, it’s mostly English and alright, it’s also largely Premier League, but it still also has a refreshing quality about it. Joe Allen, for example. Young players of the ilk of Scott Sinclair. Old players of the ilk of Ryan Giggs. With no age restrictions, but similar travails up to this point, the women’s squad includes stalwarts Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey (AND TWO SCOTS. GET IN).

They’re not amateurs, of course, and it’s hard to think of them as ‘Olympians’. But excited or not, the Games are nearly upon us – and there will be two football tournaments to watch. And maybe, just maybe, international football on home soil without too much hype and crucially, without too much FIFA, will actually be an enjoyable experience. How very un-British of us.

*Unofficially, of course, this is total bullshit

1 comment:

  1. Sublime writing. A major post at a leading newspaper can't be too far away. Unless it cramps your style, of course.