Wednesday 20 August ~
As the impressive British medals tally in Beijing continue to rise, the hopes (and hype) for London 2012 are also starting to build. The last time a Great Britain football team took part in the Olympics was in Rome in 1960, but the sporting and political establishment are only too aware of the commercial opportunities that such a team could provide in four years time and they aren’t going to let it go. Due to Olympic rules, the 1960 British team came predominantly from non-League clubs, including Northern Irish centre-forward Paddy Hasty who scored 113 goals in 142 appearances for Tooting & Mitcham. In defence, Barnet right half Roy Sleap was used to the big occasion, having lost 3-2 to Crook Town in the 1959 FA Amateur Cup final in front of 60,000 at Wembley.
The team failed to qualify from the group stages but performed creditably. They lost 4-3 to a Brazil side that that included Gerson (later to score the second goal in the 1970 World Cup final), drew 2-2 with Italy (who included Giovanni Trapattoni and Gianni Rivera, the 1969 European Footballer of the Year) and beating Chinese Taipei. The sole achievements of a British Olympic football team are much further back – a gold medal in Rome in 1908 (including a record 12-1 win over Sweden) followed by another gold at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
So 100 years after the last football gold medal the English FA, the London 2012 organising committee and the Premier League want another attempt. FA chairman Lord Triesman has said he is “completely committed” to a GB team and Sebastian Coe has talked up hiring Sir Alex Ferguson as the team’s coach, though the latter seems less keen. However, due to worries that their independent position within FIFA will be undermined, the Scottish FA have refused to have anything to do with the idea while Wales and Northern Ireland have also since pulled out. To their dismay, Sepp Blatter has stated that, although he was against the plan, a Great Britain team should field only English players. He also failed to give assurances regarding individual nation status within FIFA.
So while British politics moves towards further devolution, with the SNP gaining popularity in Scotland and the St George’s cross now established as the accepted symbol of England, sport may well shift in the opposite direction for 2012 – English football fans could once again wave the Union Flag. Quite what this team will look like is impossible to tell. The core of the team, which will compromise players aged under 23, is still at youth level and as no qualification will be needed it will be difficult to gauge how good they are. Whether the Premier League will allow so-called “marquee” players is also unclear. Richard Scudamore has hinted that the scheduled start of the Premier League season (August 13) may be delayed to avoid an Olympics clash, which runs from July 27 to August 12. But it’s going to be a long summer, with the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine taking place between June 9 and July 1. It could well be another two (in)glorious quarter-final defeats for an England football team in 2012.