Belfast Telegraph

There’s sweet FA in Olympics plan

By Stuart McKinley

Olympic gold. It’s the most sought after prize in the vast majority of sports.

Being faster, higher, stronger is the ultimate goal for millions of sportsmen and women around the globe.

Standing on top of the podium as your country’s national anthem is played and its flag raised means you’ve hit the top — unless you’re a footballer that is.

When the Olympic football tournament kicks-off as part of next summer’s games in London few, if any, of the world’s top stars will be on show.

England superstar David Beckham wants to be involved, but the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi and Wesley Sneijder will, most likely, have better things to do.

For the latter three the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine come much higher on their list of priorities than a 16-team under-23 competition — with three over-age players allowed — that fails to capture the imagination of football fans.

Winning the Champions League or lifting the World Cup is a much greater aim, or for some simply winning their own domestic league title.

The Olympics pales in comparison. So why all the fuss about Great Britain fielding a football team at London 2012?

Well, it boils down to the English FA and British Olympic Association’s wish to ensure that a competition taking place in the country where the game began won’t happen without the hosts being involved. When that involves four countries who compete in World Cups and European Championships on their own coming together under one umbrella there are many pitfalls.

Not least of those is the fear that other nations may see a fully-fledged Great Britain team’s Olympic participation as their chance to force England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to join together permanently.

It’s more a case of divided we stand, united we fall in this situation rather than the other way around.

Supposedly an agreement has been reached between the four FAs to field a team in 2012. The BOA said as much yesterday, but it’s news to the men based in Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff who are responsible for running the game in their own nation.

“History will be made during the London 2012 Olympic Games as Team GB returns to the pitch in men’s Olympic football for the first time in 52 years and competes in the women’s Olympic football tournament for the first time ever,” an excited BOA announced yesterday.

“The (English) FA has consulted with its partner Associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in developing the player-selection criteria and timeline.”

That may be so, but none of those three associations have, at any time, backed the move or ever given their blessing for their players to be selected for the teams. The general consensus has been that an England team competes under the GB title.

Which is why the other three joined together in releasing a statement of their own, putting as much distance between themselves and the GB Olympic team as they possibly can.

“The Football Associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reiterate our collective opposition to Team GB participation at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, contrary to the media release issued by the British Olympic Association,” said the statement.

“We have been consistently clear in explaining the reason for our stance, principally to protect the identity of each national association.

“With that in mind, we cannot support nor formally endorse the approach that has been proposed by the Football Association.

“We have stressed this in communications to them and are disappointed that this has been ignored in the media release.

“No discussions took place with any of us, far less historic agreement been reached, prior to the statement from the BOA being released.

“The Associations are committed to supporting the individual Home Nations playing all representative football under their respective flags as independent members of FIFA and Uefa.”

If England manage to reach the final of Euro 2012 next summer, some, but not all, football fans across the UK will want them to win it. Hardly any will care if Great Britain — a team that is meant to represent everyone — lifts the Olympic title.

So, how does it all work?

Who plays in the Olympic football competition?

Fifa don’t want the Olympics to rival the World Cup, so there are only 16 teams in the men’s tournament and 12 in the women’s. Each of Fifa’s six confederations has their own qualification procedure. In Europe the top three teams in the previous Uefa under-21 finals are awarded the places.

Why won’t a proper Great Britain team play in the football competition in 2012?

GB played in the Olympics until 1960, but Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales want to protect their independence within Fifa and fear that having a GB team in the Olympics will lead to the four British associations being disbanded.

Weren’t they quite successful?

Yes, GB twice won Olympic gold in football, but next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the last win. Until 1984 it was an amateur tournament.

Is there a way around it?

The British Olympic Association revealed that Fifa have assured the British associations of their independence, but that’s still not enough. An exciting idea as it may be for a proper Great Britain team to play in the Olympics, it is likely to be made up of English players under the GB banner. The idea of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all playing as independent nations as a one-off was floated, but it was deemed a non-starter.

Who might play if it were a proper GB team?

The men’s Olympic football tournament is an under-23 competition, meaning that in 2012 players must be born on or after January 1, 1989.

Many of the brightest prospects in the Premier League fit into that category. Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshire, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge, as well as Welsh duo Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey all eligible to play.

As far as Northern Ireland are concerned Craig Cathcart, Lee Hodson, Ryan McGivern, Josh Carson, Johnny Gorman, Oliver Norwood, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Andrew Little and Shane Ferguson would be available for selection.

With three overage players allowed, effectively any other British player could be selected, with even speculation that David Beckham may play for Team GB.

Would any Northern Ireland players want to play and what if they did?

It is 25 years since Northern Ireland last qualified for a major finals. Therefore playing in an event as prestigious as the Olympics might seem an attractive prospect to some players and a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Irish FA and their counterparts in Scotland and Wales know they can’t block players from taking part if they wish to do so and if they were to take action against anyone who does it would be akin to cutting off their nose to spite their face.

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