Friday, June 24, 2011

Team GB: Olympic Dreams

An early morning scramble for tickets for London's 2012 Olympic jamboree this morning.

Not that I'll actually be going to London. I was one of the many unlucky customers who missed out in the first round of ticketing.

Today I had to make do with a couple of football tickets. When the eyes of the world are on London I will be in Glasgow and Newcastle, my fix of faster, higher, stronger coming at Hampden and St James' Park.

Will I be watching a competition that features a truly British football team?

Will we be uniting around the Union flag, letting rip for a united British team, placing our free online bets UK wide on a GB win in a show of combined patriotism that football is not used to?

Or will we have an English team masquerading as a British side?

You know, I'm not really that bothered.

This week's talk of an historic agreement sent the footballing world (in four home nations) all a-flutter.

Did the BOA jump the gun? A volley of denials from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland suggested so.

But what is an historic agreement these days? If the other three football associations had agreed previously to let England go it alone then that would have been an agreement.

Historic? It's hardly up there with the deals made at the Yalta Conference but historic is a word that's rather lost its currency in our overhyped age.

I'm also fairly content that a GB team will not pose a threat to the independent identity of the four home nations.

It's understandable to be wary of assurances from Sepp Blatter's Fifa, you'd count your fingers and check your watch if you ever had to shake hands with the Swiss swindler.

But I still feel that Fifa would be too scared of a collision with Uefa and the threat of a handful of big English clubs filling the power vacuum created by a protracted stand off to risk forcing through a withdrawal of our footballing independence.

A loss of our power at Fifa is more likely than the loss of our membership. And that will be a loss, given the strong and principled way the four home nations have acted to halt the progress of the crooked, the bribed and the incompetent in football's governing body.

So I remain agnostic about the whole affair, see it all as a bit of a storm in a teacup. Even a wholly representative team would be nothing more than a convenient and brief construct, I'd struggle to be vocal in my support but I'd certainly not wish them any harm.

Football, it's been said, should have no place in the Olympics. That's fair enough if we accept that the games should be run entirely for the consumption of British audiences, completely ignoring that other countries might actually like this event, glory in their Olympic success and see it as a crucial way to develop young players on a world stage.

In the hands of one or two English journalist this "no football" stance has gone hand in hand with proclamations about the Olympic amateur ideal.

It's quaint to think that tweets on this subject have arrived fully formed from Eric Liddell's 1920s. The horses have left that particular stable, those particular chariots were long ago consumed by fire.

As Liddell became a missionary in China, so Chris Hoy got a knighthood and a Shredded Wheat commercial. Sport has changed.

An event as commercialised as the Olympics is always going to fancy a piece of football's global monopoly action.

The British Olympic Association, creative press releases and all, are reflecting this desire in the hope that a GB team will fill stadiums. A check on the ticketing website an hour or so after I bought my tickets suggests they might be right - tickets are no longer available for any of the football venues.

Scotland, of course, don't need to take part. Scottish players don't need to make themselves available for selection and the selectors themselves, obviously without discriminating, can simply decide that only English players are worthy of inclusion.

I'd certainly prefer that to the SFA threatening any Scottish players with bans or future international exclusion for taking part. Playing for a GB team in the Olympics would never have been my footballing dream. But it remains the Olympics and a unique opportunity for young players. I'd be uneasy with threats of reprisals for any players who sees that as an honour they'd like to grab.

If it's going to happen might I suggest a compromise.

A GB team, one that lacks the historical attachment of rugby's Lions and other combined teams, would probably not excel at the Olympics. Their tournament record suggests a solely English team might not do much better.

So why not forego the token overage players, commit to representation from each of the four home nations and dictate that those players can only be playing in the lower leagues at the time of their inclusion.

The best young talent that might not be given the chance by their own national team could then be exposed to the best facilities, the feel of an international tournament and the chance to test themselves against international talent that they wouldn't normally meet.

Thus this tiresome, Olympian row could reinvent itself as being hothouse for player development that doesn't currently have an equal in British football.

The BOA could paint themselves not as money mad infidels intent on exploding the Olympic dream and the very future of British football but as guardians of the game, creating a living, breathing Olympic legacy project.

It might even carry enough hints of the amateur ideal to keep Henry Winter happy with dreams of Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway.

We could even argue that this approach has a historical precedent. In 1948 Matt Busby selected an 18 year old Queens Park goalkeeper in his Olympic squad.

Ronnie Simpson would eventually end a storied career as European Cup winning Lisbon Lion.