By Henry Cooke
The World Cup, the Euros, the African Cup of Nations, the Copa América…the Olympics. Finishing in a disappointing fifth, the world’s oldest sporting competition neither wants, nor tries to compete with the greatest names in tournament football. But while winning gold cannot hold a torch to lifting the World Cup, missing the podium completely could prove devastating, especially for Great Britain. With a slinky kit and a cumbersome title, ‘Team GB’ has a bonus opportunity to soothe its collective pains, and at the moment both the men and women are on the right track.
But with Olympic qualification secured through the under-21 championships, Team GB was only permitted to exist due to London’s status as host city. Even this was no guarantee, for the Team GB project has faced resistance from all but the English FA as its Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts understandably feared their involvement may undermine their footballing autonomy. While such obstacles ensure a British team will never feature at the World Cup, should this mean Team GB be consigned to the scrap heap?
The Great British experiment has already produced numerous unlikely but positive results; forcing the football associations of each Home Nation to act (relatively) maturely, generating an unexpected amount of player enthusiasm and most spectacular of all: a sensible decision by FIFA. For all its faults, and they are legion, FIFA’s executive committee took the brave step of guaranteeing the independence of each British football association should Team GB come into existence. With a significant barrier now removed, the dissenting FA’s contented themselves with quiet grumbling as 182 players across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland answered Team GB’s initial invitation, with only seven rejections (eight if you include Gareth Bale).
Many of these players will have made themselves available against the explicit wishes of their own football associations by accepting the call for Olympic consideration; as such, each has demonstrated that while F.A’s may claim to represent their countries best interests, footballers predominantly want one thing: to play. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey (despite the former’s eventual absence) constituted the most high-profile dissenters, and despite isolated incidents of Welsh outrage, it remains difficult to take umbrage with footballers simply following in the footsteps of hundreds of fellow athletes. And what of the UK Women’s team? Hope Powell enjoyed a 100% acceptance rate from her shortlist of players, must they be denied a vital opportunity to attract more commercial and popular appeal? The fairer Team GB need more exposure than their male counterparts yet arguably stand a better chance of winning something.
In theory, the only way to keep Team GB while maintaining autonomy at a senior, international level is to form British teams from under-21 and below. While this concept will sit uncomfortably with many and would face serious administrative hurdles, there are many potential benefits for the UK as a whole especially at a time when our entire approach to youth coaching being reappraised. Each football association could benefit by combining their efforts, encouraging a more efficient overhaul of British football. By sharing resources, best practice, coaches and facilities, potential can be identified faster, cultivated more effectively and used to form a larger pool of talent that will encourage more competition at youth level.
Granted, each of the Home Nations will then be unable to enter separate teams at youth level, but the payoff comes with patience, when the maturing talents of the UK’s under-23’s are able to gain extra experience of international football in a competitive tournament watched by millions. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are currently so mediocre that fans have been forced to develop realistic expectations, but while this is good for the heart-rate it’s bad for the soul. We don’t watch football to be objective. In Team GB, we have something shiny and new, untarnished by penalty shoot-outs, qualification failure, or awkward wins over Azerbaijan. This hybrid of the seasoned and the inexperienced, star and novice, can start with a clean slate, freed from a history of disappointment. As such, at London 2012 there is more at stake than pride.
Should both the men’s and women’s teams fail to secure a podium finish, then Team GB will probably be consigned to the history books as a failed experiment. But should they win gold…then the outcome would be far more interesting. Assembled from nations unaccustomed to success, a Gold for Team GB could give us all a taste for victory…whatever the circumstances.
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- smifferino answered: I want to see a team GB team always not just at the olympics - we might actually win something then!
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