Earlier this month FIFA announced that Great Britain will field a women’s football team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The news has reignited the debate surrounding singular representation between the fans and football associations of all four home nations, as well as stirring the pot in South America and Africa. We spoke to fans from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to find out how they feel about joining under the same banner, and asked the question: Can the United Kingdom ever be united?
“The whole point of going to the Olympics is that special moment when your flag goes up. What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well, it’s not my flag; my flag’s a Dragon.” Somewhere between the end of his career as the finest goalkeeper Wales have ever produced and becoming the cornerstone for liberal baby-boomers on social media, Neville Southall was concisely articulating why a football team representing Great Britain will never be universally accepted.
It was with exceeding apprehension that all four football associations of the United Kingdom agreed to field both men’s and women’s sides under the ‘Team GB’ banner at the 2012 Olympics, though they were eventually talked round. After all, it was promised to be a one-off event, to celebrate the return of the Games after 64 years. That was until four years later when, ahead of the Rio Olympics, the bellyaching about the lack of British participation began in earnest. Sam Allardyce, 32 days into his 67-day reign as England manager, was the first to publicly decry Britain’s absence in the football tournament, and was quickly followed by Andrew R. T. Davies, at the time leader of the Welsh Conservative Party, who blamed “petty nationalism” for Team GB’s refusal to enter.
Davies’ quotes on the matter, not only wildly out-of-touch with popular opinion, came at a time when the relationships between Britain’s four constituent countries could not have been more fraught. Coming two months after the EU Referendum, the most divisive vote in the post-war era, Davies’ ‘petty nationalist’ comments were lost in the noise surrounding Brexit and the move to leave the European Union based on a 4% swing across the United Kingdom. A quick glance at the referendum results by country shows that 50% of those constituent countries voted to remain in the EU, while the biggest swing towards Leave came from England. In the two years since the vote, the concerns of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on the matter have played second fiddle to the government’s hell-bent ambition of delivering The Will Of The (English) People.
But what does this have to do with football? The government’s position on the rest of the UK throughout the process of leaving the EU provides a neat parallel to England’s long-established attitude towards its neighbouring nations. It’s not unfair to suggest that Great Britain’s largest nation has something of a superiority complex and, given the repeated calls for Scottish independence and Welsh devolution, it seems the United Kingdom has never been more divided. From smug jokes about Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen walking into a bar – in which the latter two are always the punchline – to government underfunding in the Welsh NHS, British society has always put England first.
“We have twice gone through the Olympic issue. The three Celtic nations, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, decided not to get involved in that because of the pressure we experienced in the 1970s and 80s.”
Jim Shaw, Former IFA President
Take the 2012 Olympics. After winning round all four home nation football associations, Team GB entered both men’s and women’s sides to compete in the football tournament. Venues for the competition included London, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, but supporters from Northern Ireland were forced to travel across to the mainland should they wish to attend a game. Not that they’d have seen any homegrown players in action, as both men’s and women’s sides opted to name largely English squads. For the men’s team, five Welsh players were named in the eighteen man squad, while the women’s team called up just two non-English players – Scottish internationals Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke. Despite the inclusion of two players from north of the border, all four of the women’s games took place in England. The men, meanwhile, split their time between England and Wales, perhaps fittingly given Ryan Giggs’ sentimental inclusion in the squad. Regardless, both teams could be boiled down to ‘England plus Special Guests’.
But does anyone really take much notice of Olympic football? Is it worth all four nations compromising their national identity for a forgettable month once every four years? Gary Jordan, author of Out of the Shadows: The Story of the 1982 England World Cup Team, can see the argument from both sides, “Football at the Olympics will always be something that people are hot and cold over. Some will see it as a burden and another extension on the football calendar, for others it will be a great opportunity to see stars of the future progress in tournament style football”.
Of course in the 1920s it was the pinnacle of the game; the only real international tournament of any note, and the competition that inspired the creation of the World Cup. Back then, however, the sport was very different. Once professionalism in football began to spread across the world, interest in the amateur football at the Olympics began to wane. Having won three gold medals at the beginning of the twentieth century, Great Britain slowly withdrew from the event altogether. The last time they’d qualified was in 1960, eight years after being knocked out by Luxembourg, before the FA abolished the distinction between amateur and professionalism in 1974, and stopped entering a team altogether.
“We play as England and we are proud to play as England and I know Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are proud to play as their own individual entities and we wouldn’t want to do anything to risk that.”
Alex Horne, Former FA General Secretary
Since 1992, the men’s event has become a glorified youth tournament, with countries allowed to name three overage players in a majority under-23 squad. In the seven Olympic Games since, Spain (featuring the makings of their underachieving late-90s vintage) and Brazil (featuring Neymar) have been the most high-profile winners, with Nigeria and Cameroon picking up a gold medal apiece in between. At London 2012, in the most England-inspired way imaginable, Team GB meekly exited at the quarter-final stage against South Korea: losing out on penalty kicks.
Russell from the Three Lions podcast has little appetite for a men’s Team GB, “I can’t really see any benefits. Each nation already has underage teams competing in various tournaments, and extra games and travelling will undoubtedly see clubs withdrawing players, particularly since it takes place in pre-season and shortly after the Euros.”
For the women’s game, the Olympics is a different beast altogether. Introduced at the 1996 Games, five years after the inaugural Women’s World Cup, there are no age restrictions in this event, giving it the feel of another senior international tournament. Since its inception, the women’s football event at the Olympics has seen familiar names win gold. The United States (on four occasions), Norway and Germany make up the list of Olympic football tournament winners and, most notably, are three of the four nations to have won at least one of the seven editions of the World Cup. Japan, the missing party, won silver in 2012, a year after becoming world champions for the first time.
“Of course, there is an element of politics at play here, but we understand, especially for the women’s game, there is some benefit in our women having some competition experience and the Olympics provides that.”
Jonathan Ford, FAW Chief Executive
All of which adds some weight to the argument that the omission of a Team GB women’s football side is an opportunity missed to enhance a sport that has been growing in popularity in the last decade. The chance for British players to compete against the best in the world on the biggest possible stage is broadly positive, but not without its drawbacks. First of all, Team GB have to qualify, which involves finishing in the top three at next year’s World Cup. Despite Scotland having also made it to France, the perception is that Team GB’s fate rests in the hands of Phil Neville and the England team. Should they secure qualification, its expected that the final squad will be heavily weighted towards the players that got them to Japan in the first place, with potentially two or three Scottish and Welsh players sprinkled in for good measure. Despite the clear and obvious talent in the Scotland and Wales women’s teams, their inclusion in any final squad smacks of tokenism.
It also undermines the brilliant work that all four Football Associations have done to promote the women’s game in their respective countries. Though Northern Ireland struggled in the World Cup qualifiers and are still very much in development, Wales’ emergence, in line with the men’s team, offers promising signs for the future, and its understandable that the FAW should be wary of anything that may stymie the progress already made. In his #NoTeamGB essay from 2016, Podcast Pêl-droed’s Gareth Taylor explained why overstating the importance of Olympic football is harmful to the women’s game:
“I think a view that looks to the Olympics to grow the women’s game worldwide is a view that lacks ambition for how successful it could be in the long run. Men’s football is a relatively insignificant part of the Olympic Games because of its huge worldwide success outside of the first two weeks in August. Why should the same model not be applicable to the Women’s World Cup, Champions League and Premier League? To effectively say the Olympics is as good as its going to get for women’s football is akin to saying netball is as good as it’s going to get for girls’ PE lessons 25 years ago.”
The Team GB debate doesn’t just stop at the Olympics however, and perhaps the biggest source of reluctance from the Welsh, Scottish and Northen Irish football associations to promote a united team is the threat of their independent FIFA membership. When FIFA was first founded in 1904, it recognised the importance of the home nations to the development of the international game. The first official fixture between two nations took place at the Hamilton Crescent in Partick in 1872, as Scotland hosted England. That typically thrilling goalless draw revolutionised the sport, and set the wheels in motion for the multi-billion pound industry we know today. But not everyone agrees that the sovereign state of the United Kingdom should be given four separate footballing entities.
“The fact of the matter is that we are independent football nations and we will continue to fight for that. ‘It’s always on the radar and has been for a long time, and we will continue to work with our colleagues at the FA, Wales and Ireland.”
Stewart Regan, Former SFA Chief Executive
World Cup qualification berths have long been a bone of contention, and one of the driving forces behind the continued expansion of the tournament. Since qualifiers were introduced, UEFA has been given the largest share of qualification places, despite having the same amount of FIFA member nations as CAF (55). Chris Holt, Night Editor for the Sheffield Telegraph and a Northern Ireland fan, isn’t surprised UEFA are given the biggest share of the spoils, “UEFA has the largest representation because it’s the strongest, it’s as simple as that. FIFA know that they have to at least try and ensure that the biggest countries, in a football sense, are at World Cups, and the majority of those are in Europe.”
Unsurprisingly, the African representatives on the FIFA committee are unhappy that their continent receives nine fewer slots in the tournament compared to their European counterparts. South America, too, have previously complained about their lack of representation at World Cups, as five Conmebol qualification places mean that, more often than not, one of their high ranking teams misses out on the finals. In his response piece to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Russell Todd from Podcast Pêl-droed sympathised with the disgruntled confederations: “To demand that British players, men or women, can represent different nations as and when it suits smacks of the very same sense of entitlement that they resent. ‘The best of both worlds’ – precisely why it would serve to inflame and antagonise.”
Along the way the ire has landed at the feet of the UK who, despite having only once had all four nations at the same tournament (and no more than one since the expansion to 32 teams in 1998), are deemed to have an unfair advantage when it comes to qualification. The argument that British football supporters have four opportunities to see a team at the World Cup is riddled with holes, but its main downfall is the ignorance of national identity. During the 2018 World Cup, the idea of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish fans joining hands with their English counterparts and cheering on Gareth’s Bloody Brave Boys was ludicrous. Instead, while fans of the Three Lions were trampling over ambulances and trashing IKEA, their British brethren were spending a fortune at Sports Direct on flags and shirts of England’s next opponents. Call it ‘petty nationalism’, call it ‘toxic tribalism’, for better or worse it’s the fabric of football support.
But are fears of a future Team GB based in any kind of reality? Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, FIFA guaranteed that all four nations’ independent status was safe, regardless of their participation at the Games. But when Gianni Infantino was installed as the new FIFA president in 2016, the four football associations were back on high alert. Andrew R. T. Davies, however, remained confident that FIFA would stick to their previous agreement, as anything to the contrary would represent “financial self-harm on a devastating scale”. Similarly for the nations in question, there’s no obvious financial or sporting benefit to acquiesce.
Russell (Three Lions) offered just a few potential stumbling blocks for the idea: “Where would the games be played? What would the national anthem be? What colours would the teams wear? What would the badge become? Would there be terrace songs? would they be individual nationalistic/political ones that causes conflict between supporters? I couldn’t imagine the Celtic nations supporting an English player and vice-versa.” Sportswriter Gary Jordan, too, believes the four separate nations are now ingrained in British culture: “The players need to feel an identity with their nation that the GB format doesn’t offer. There is far too much history and pride in playing for your own nation, and that shouldn’t be changed”.
Whilst there is clearly little thirst in the UK for a combined national team, and no obvious benefits to FIFA or the constituent associations, the insistence on a full-time Team GB would hardly represent the most bizarre or controversial move from an organisation that has defecated all over its flagship competition for a few hundred billion Qatari Rials. The United Kingdom is unique in its makeup, but its important for the rest of the world to understand that, beyond this facade of an island nation, there are four separate countries with four unique cultures. In trying times patriotism can provide solace and, in victory or defeat, supporting a team made up of your fellow countrymen can be energising and inspirational. For Northern Ireland supporter Chris Holt, a united team is the last thing a divided nation needs, “The idea of Britishness is diluting presently, and we’re probably more likely to see the break up of the union before we see a united British team.”
In essence, Team GB would be like Giant’s Causeway without the chimney stacks, or Loch Ness without the monster. It’d be Tom Jones without the chest hair, or a traditional English pub without the perpetual whiff of piss. Though there may be some limited appeal at the Olympic games, the future of the sport in Britain depends on the autonomy of its four independent associations. It is down to them to provide the resources for both the men’s and women’s games to thrive.