Rooting for one’s homeland is the best part of international soccer. But what if your country didn’t have a team?
That is exactly the problem the United Kingdom has encountered ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Soccer breaks the UK's national teams down to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Olympics does not recognize those teams. Instead, it recognizes them as a block known as Great Britain. It all adds up to one big controversy.
Fans from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland don’t usually care too much if a runner or wrestler from England wins a gold medal. Soccer is a different matter. These three don’t want anyone to mess with their soccer teams. When it comes to the beautiful game, these four countries have historically been bitter regional rivals. Trying to get all these fans to back one, unified team is a tall order. Unfortunately, even the Olympic spirit can’t do it.
Last June, it was announced that a historic deal was made to field one team – instead of four separate ones like at a World Cup or European Championship – dubbed “Team GB.” Soccer officials from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were, let’s say, less than pleased about it. Fearing it would create a precedent and jeopardize their independence as FIFA members, officials from these three nations refused to endorse the deal. FIFA had assured them that it wouldn’t happen, but that did not stop the Team GB bashing.
Former Scotland coach Craig Brown said he “would rather lose as Scotland, than win as Great Britain.”
“I am very patriotic, as most football fans are. It's far more important to play for Scotland than play for Great Britain,” he added.
Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish Football Federation, said, “We need to protect our identity, and we have no interest in taking part.”
On and on the bashing went. But despite the discontent, England’s FA plans to go ahead with the plan to field men's and women’s teams, regardless of what Wales, Scotland and Northern Irelands wants. Now, a few months after the initial controversy flared tempers, Welsh players like Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aron Ramsey have indicated they are interested in playing for the squad.
Great Britain has not fielded a men’s Olympic soccer team since 1960, while the women have never participated. Since the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, Great Britain hasn’t really even tried to qualify for the Olympics. As host this summer, the British automatically qualify for the men’s and women's soccer tournaments as hosts.
What now for Team GB with less than 200 days to go before the start of the London Games?
It looks as if the team will be loaded with English players and few from anywhere else. Since the Olympic men's soccer tournament is an Under-23 event, only three “overage players” can be used. Overall, the team will be comprised of young talent. The team will be coached by former defender Stuart Pearce, an Englishman who knows that non-English-born players aren’t dying to get involved. That’s somewhat limiting for him when it comes to making choices.
“I am not going into this job looking only to select English players. It should be made up if at all possible of all the home nations,” said Pearce. “They should come forward and put their players up for selection.”
One player who wants to play – and he's made no secret of it – is David Beckham, an Englishman. At 36, this may be the last chance he gets to play for his country at a major tournament. Pearce and Beckham once played together for England and all indications are he will pick his former teammate.
Beckham won’t make or break this team. The lack of a unified team will. Without players from all four countries, Team GB will be a farce and not at all in line with the Olympic spirit of peace and unity. Not to put too a big emphasis on it, but if these countries – which share a currency, people and history – can’t get together and play, then what does that say about the Olympics?