Thursday 8 January ~
The biggest fear gripping the average Scotland supporter today is not their team missing out on the next World Cup or England actually winning the thing, but rather a Great Britain side being entered for the 2012 Olympics. The firmly held belief on the terraces, in the offices of the SFA, amongst the columnists and even in the Scottish government is that taking part in this one-off event will bring to an end a history that stretches back to 1872 and cause the four separate Home Nations international teams to be replaced by a Team GB.
Ex-Scotland manager Craig Brown launched a “No to Team GB” in December, co-sponsored by SNP MSP Christine Grahame, chair of the Scottish Parliament’s health and sport committee, which received over 1,500 signatures in its first two weeks. Brown has said: “Being very patriotic and Scottish, I am bitterly opposed to that [Team GB], because I don’t trust FIFA’s assurances that these things won’t be binding for the future.” As well as official SFA opposition, David Will, Scotland’s FIFA representative, has also vetoed any British football team.
The last “British” team to enter the Olympic football competition was in 1972, when a predominantly English team organised by the English FA were knocked out by Bulgaria in the qualifying rounds. A few years later the association scrapped the distinction between professional and amateur players which ended the right of a British Olympic entry before the Games acceptance of paid sportsmen. As 2012 hosts Britain have automatic entry, with the European Under-21 championship providing the rest of the continent's qualifiers.
There has been no precedent to cause the dread of a united team, which has been haunting Scottish football for decades, and FIFA has given assurances that a joint team for the London Olympics won’t terminate the home nations’ independence, although the final decision would come down to the 156 member delegates. Concacaf president Jack Warner has been a vocal opponent of the four home nations concept in the past but he has not spoken out against a UK Olympic team. Meanwhile, Sepp Blatter has been reliably contradictory, arguing for and against Team GB in recent months.
In the Scottish Parliament, opinion is split between the two main parties, Labour and the SNP. Gordon Brown supports a British team and Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy has been offered guarantees by FIFA that the home nations’ unique position is secure. In response SNP First Minister Alex Salmond has called Brown “daft”. Brown’s co-sponsor Grahame – whose past attempts to grab headlines have included trying to reclaim Berwick for Scotland – has called on FIFA to investigate “political interference” over the creation of a Great British football team which, she claims, could see the English national and club sides kicked out of international competition.
The Northern Irish and Welsh Football Associations are taking the same line as Scotland on an Olympic team while the FA actively supports its creation. Surely England would hate to lose their identity just as much as their Celtic neighbours, even being the dominant partner.
Perhaps the reality is a little more shameful. A large proportion of Scots don’t tend to support Britain in the Olympics and I have to admit the 2008 Games was the first time I wanted my country to win medals. In 2012 Scotland fans would be asked to support a team comprised mainly, or even entirely, of players who normally represent a side they want to see lose every time. Coupled with this will be the unavoidable evidence that England have the best footballers in the UK as the 11 run out onto Hampden Park wearing their Union Jack jerseys. When the Olympics were held in London in 1908, a “British” side won gold although all 11 were English in a team organised by the FA. They retained the title in 1912, by which time the name was changed to “England”. This is at the core of the great opposition to Team GB in Scotland – why risk everything for an event you don’t even want to happen? Gordon Cairns