Sunday, 31 August 2008

Olympic Fitba Team

There is a rather large kerfuffle at present about whether or not there should be a Great Britain football team in the 2012 Olympics.

Gordon Brown, seemingly unaware that any such statement will be jumped upon by Alec Salmond with similar relish to John Prescott finding himself in a strip club that was running 'a free cake with every dance' offer. The state of play seems to be this - as the four ''Home Nations'' have separate national football teams, largely due to their historic role in the foundation of the international game, Great Britain has not had a football team in the Olympics since 1972. Some of the national bodies (such as The SFA) fear that a Great British Olympic football in 2012 would set a precedent - that the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish teams would be disbanded and a Great British team (presumably populated largely by the English) would replace them.

One fudge solution from Cathy Jamieson (presumably strengthening her leadership credentials by following Alexander's lead of not checking press releases or policy ides with Downing Street) is to institute a Home Nations tournament and the winner would represent Great Britain at the Olympics - how to bond the nation together! If, heaven forfend, England won this mini-tournament I can just see the crowds in George Square cheering on whoever ''Team GB'' were playing.

Now, if Scotland were to become independent after the referendum in 2010 it would be the nation's prerogative to institute a National Olympic Committee, and following presumably some bureacracy, would be allowed to enter the Olympics as an independent nation. As others have pointed out, Chris Hoy (a man that Salmond has wisely hailed all week) probably wouldn't have won those medals for a number of reasons - there is no real coaching structure in Scotland, the Team Sprint comprised two Englishmen and Hoy, and the two leading velodromes in the country and are in England (Manchester) and Wales (Newport). That isn't to take away from Hoy's achievements - just pointing out that he wouldn't have done as well under the proposed system and neither would his team-mates. To make matters worse, France would have had an extra gold - and neither Scotland NOR the UK would have picked up the medal. (This isn't an argument against independence, of course, but should be considered in the context of the remarks by the Scottish Sports Minister).

When pressed on this matter Stewart Maxwell responded: "What I would say to them is, do Irish athletes want to rejoin the UK and be part of the UK team? Do we want to get rid of the GB team and have a European team because a European team would sweep the board? You have to think about whether or not it's appropriate in the level you represent your own country in. I think it's quite right you represent your own country."

For those of you readers with any form of functioning brain - you will realise that this is what is known in the trade as ''total bollocks''.

Firstly, The Republic of Ireland isn't part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Northern Irish athletes could, due to the passport system there, choose to represent The Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has a National Olympic Committee. Scotland does not and (crucially) cannot, under IOC regulations, until it is an independent nation. Secondly, the European Union is not a country. This kneejerk response, when looked at it detail, actually says hee-haw.

Which, rather strangely, brings us back to the potentially prickly question of a Great British football team. Both UEFA and FIFA have said that if a Great British team were to enter a future Olympics this would not compromise the status of the ''Home Nations''. View these organisations with skepticism if you wish but it simply isn't the threat the SFA has always commented upon. Salmond and others, quite wisely from a political point of view, will suggest otherwise but there is no actual evidence that the presence of a GB team at 2012 would have any negative impact on the existence of the four Home Nations football teams.

Whenever this has been discussed over the past few years, people claim that this will be the thin end of the wedge or a slippery slope. As all debaters or students of rhetoric know, these are notoriously bad arguments anyway, but especially so when the two bodies that the nay-sayers are talking about as a threat have explicitly said that a GB team would not influence the standing of the four Home Nations. The UK competed in the Olympics until as recently as 1960 and attempted to qualify for the Olympics until 1972. The reason we stopped sending a team was largely due to the four Football Associations agreeding to for the reason that football was a professional sport whereas the Olympics should be an example of amateurism. One would imagine that this precedent would have FIFA and UEFA hopping with delight.

The Four Home Nations, remember, are disproportionately powerful in world football. First, they have separate identities already within FIFA and undoing this would be fairly difficult. Secondly, all four nations have a guaranteed position as Vice-Presidency on the FIFA Management Committee. Thirdly, they have a 50% prescence on the International Football Association Board (all the other countries in the world have the other 50%). Furthermore, other countries do not want to see a UK football team generally because, due to the increase in talent to pick from, they would be a much harder proposition to deal with... England plus Alan Hutton, Ryan Giggs (still) and Craig Gordon would be a much trickier proposition.

So FIFA have said that they would view this as a justifiable anomaly; UEFA have said that there is would be a justifiable anomaly; successive UK government has said that it would be an justifiable anomaly and that they would fight any prospect of the four Home Nations being under threat if such a threat were to arise; there are analagous examples elsewhere in sport (there are other sporting anomalies like this - GB & I Lions tests are considered international matches yet there are three 'Home Nations' and a United Ireland rugby team; there is a UK Olympic team in general whilst football, rugby and cricket all have individual national teams at international level; the West Indies compete at cricket yet, if 20/20 were introduced in 2012 or 2016, the individual nations would be allowed to field teams without hindering their standing within the ICC. Whilst these are all differing examples, it shows that the international sporting community can find room for these anomalies); there is historical precedent within the Olympics and this had no detrimental effect on the status of the four separate football associations.

Furthermore, this may well end up undoing the national team structure, as some suggest FIFA want, which would have massive ramifications on the ongoing presence of the league and qualification structures of UEFA Competitions (i.e. should separate national leagues exist?). I really don't think they'll want to pick this fight.

I'm not saying, necessarily, I am in favour of a combined football team. I'm just pointing out that the arguments being put forward show a marked misunderstanding of how FIFA and UEFA work or, indeed, want.


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