The presence of football in the Olympic games angers many and confuses many others. The competition is not perceived by the British audience as being particularly important to the professional footballer of today, especially one of British origin, and is outweighed in prestige by, among other competitions, the FIFA World Cup. There are claims that its place in the Olympics should be taken away and given to another sport for which Olympic gold would be the ultimate goal. My personal view would tend to agree with those claims and I would much rather see squash as an Olympic sport than football.
However football has a long history in the Olympics, there has been a football event in all but two of the summer Olympics since the modern games began in 1896 and it has featured in every summer Olympiad since Berlin in 1936. The modern British view of irrelevance may have more to do with the fact that Great Britain & N. Ireland haven’t entered a side into an Olympic football qualifying tournament since Munich 1972. It seems a simplistic view but the fact that we haven’t had a home interest in Olympic football for forty years will naturally lead to less importance being placed on the competition. Were more people aware that Britain are still the joint most successful team in Olympic football history (3 golds, tied with Hungary), then perhaps there’d be more clamour to reassert our authority?
The tournament may also have less relevance in the rest of Europe due to it clashing with the more prestigious UEFA European Football Championships and the start of many domestic leagues. The suggestion that few, if any, European countries send a full strength side to the Olympic football tournament is backed up when looking at past results; the past four men’s Olympic competitions have been won by African and South American nations, whereas the last four FIFA world cups have seen three European victories.
Just because Britain has largely ignored football at the Olympics for the past forty years doesn’t mean that we should continue to do so though. This summer sees the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen taking place right on our doorstep, won’t it be somewhat of an embarrassment if we don’t have a representative team of our national sport in a home Olympics?
Players from the home nations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should be free to combine and form a united GB&NI team for the Olympics. Indeed the countries respective football associations have been given assurances by the FIFA Executive Committee that competing as a united team in the Olympics would “not affect the existing individual status of the four British football associations”. So why then, do the associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales still seem so against the idea?
Unfortunately it’s not just the respective associations that are opposed. A joint statement issued in 2006 by the fan associations of all four home nations noted their opposition to a combined Team GB at London 2012. They also cited a worry that participation could jeopardise their individual status. This view was reiterated by the Welsh fan association in 2011, and ticket sales for the football tournament at London 2012 don’t exactly suggest the public are desperate to get hold of them.
The associations themselves have admitted that they have no legal grounds to prevent any selected players representing Britain in the Olympics though. So should, as seems highly likely, Welsh stars such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey get picked by Stuart Pearce for London 2012 then it would be a personal decision as to whether they play or not. I think it’s fantastic that both players in question have publicly stated their desire to represent Britain and I hope that any other non-English player selected will also defy their association and play.
Whilst I have admitted that I wouldn’t be too upset to see football disappear from the Olympics I think that whilst it is still a part of the games we should compete in and make use of the tournament. Not only would it provide a lift to dispirited fans of international football to see young, passionate and proud footballers excelling on the Olympic stage but it would be a great experience for the players too. Imagine the confidence boost it would give to an English player left out of the Euro2012 squad or a Scottish player yet to experience life at a big tournament.
The event itself acts as an unofficial under-23 world cup so we should take it seriously, if a player is a late developer and hasn’t gone through the ranks of age-group international football then the Olympic tournament is a perfect place for them to shine. The same theory can be applied to a player cast aside from the international scene after U21 level but still shows potential.
I’m a firm believer that experience of tournament football and playing at a big event, be that an age-group international tournament or the Olympic games, can only help our nations’ footballers when it comes to a European Championships or a World Cup. So why do we stop our best young players going to the international tournaments and pass up the opportunity to gain such experience at the Olympics, the most high-profile sporting event on the planet? A gold medal for Argentina at the 2008 Beijing games certainly doesn’t seem to have done Lionel Messi any harm!
If we look towards the future of football at the Olympics then I see little to suggest that it will be removed from the games. The women’s competition is contested between full strength sides with no age restrictions and as such is regarded as more important in the women’s game. The advantage for the women is that their World Cup and European Championships take place in odd-numbered years, leaving national coaches with a full quota of players to pick from without risking burnout.
The strength of the women’s competition means that the men are very unlikely to have their chance of a medal taken from them. I could never imagine FIFA or the IOC allowing a situation in which one of the most played sports in the world is accused of discrimination because there was no male competition in the Olympics.
Football is coming home this summer whether we like it or not, so we may as well show the world that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are still proud to play the game that we gave them, as one united team.