Now that the London 2012 Olympics approaches, and tickets need to be sold, the issue of a combined Great Britain football team has reached the news once again. With staggering arrogance and dismissiveness, the British Olympic Association, and the English FA have released a statement claiming that some sort of agreement has been reached between the home nations. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Scottish and Welsh associations categorically deny that anything has changed since they last re-iterated their opposition.
The only thing that has happened today is that the FA have officially agreed to take charge of the team. There is nothing legally that Scotland or Wales can do to prevent their players from taking part, but that has always been the case. That doesn’t change the fact that the FAW has and always will oppose the idea. It’s worth taking a look at why there is so much opposition to Team GB from a Welsh perspective.
The Welsh are normally pretty passive when it comes to combined sports teams. They follow the British Lions rugby side in huge numbers, and even lend their support to an England & Wales cricket side that plays home games in Cardiff, under a single name. And the Welsh will be cheering on Geraint Thomas and Dave Brailsford as they carry the Union Jack in a proper Olympic sport. Our objection isn’t about nationalism, or petty insularity. There are very good historical reasons for us to specifically oppose a combined Olympic football team.
Upton Park FC played demonstration games at the 1900 Games in Paris. When the Olympics visited London in 1908, the British were represented by the English national Amateur team, who won the gold medal. After this event, an agreement was reached whereby England would represent Britain at future Olympic tournaments.
Way back in 1928, the home nations resigned from FIFA about their attitude towards expenses for the teams who took part in the Olympics. Their resignation contained some trademark colonial sniffiness.
The great majority of the associations affiliated with FIFA are of comparatively recent formation, and as a consequence cannot have the knowledge that only experience can bring.
You see, organised football began in Britain, and for many years there were only three teams for Wales to play against – England Scotland and Ireland. There were no national politics to worry about and Englishmen sometimes played for Wales in a spirit of great friendship and solidarity. The new continental teams were then allowed to join in, but there was no doubt who the game belonged to. And when FIFA tried to impose it’s own semi-professional ethos to the Olympic Games, the Home Nations simply resigned. The Olympian idea was sacrosanct, and the British felt it should remain fully amateur.
With London’s 1948 Olympic Games approaching, a team representing Great Britain was being put together from the best of the amateur players in the UK and a number of Welsh players were invited to trial matches. The FAW magnanimously admitted that “it is true that we hope to see some of our players taking part in the Olympic games but if it is felt that the other three countries are able to produce the better players then of course your council will be happy to abide by the decision of the selection committee. ” In the event, three Welshmen were selected for the squad; Frank Donovan of Pembroke Borough, George Manning of Troedyrhiw, and Doug Smith of Barry. The FAW were grateful to the English FA who had agreed to bear most of the considerable costs of the GB team.
With the 1952 Olympics approaching in Helsinki, the FAW announced that they would not be sending a Welsh team.
In view of the expenditure involved the Council decided it would be impossible for Wales to participate in the games, and whilst not prepared to bear any financial responsibility itself, expressed its willingness for one Association to send a team representing GB, and for the Association so concerned to make arrangements for the constitution of the selection committee and decide upon the procedure for selecting players. The FAW would be prepared to give any support asked for concerning the selection of players.
That might seem like a pretty hearty support for a combined Team GB which could be used now as a hammer to hit the FAW. But this was an amateur team, and a completely different situation. This was not the national team, and more importantly there was no thought of forcing the home nations to combine and form one side playing under the Union Jack. In those days, our various national sides were a huge draw, and fixtures against our country were rare and highly sought after. When the UK stopped being such a power in the game, those fixtures became less attractive.
And the point is that we are talking about the Olympics. Football’s relationship to the Olympic Games is tenuous to say the least. Football doesn’t care about the Olympics, and their sham tournament for U23′s with a couple of older blokes thrown in for no particular reason is an irrelevance. The FAW wouldn’t have given a second thought to Olympic participation in the 1950s. It was like sending a team to a left-footed keepy-uppy competition in Paraguay. It meant nothing then, and it means nothing now. A football match at the Olympics is the equivalent of a gymnastic display at half-time during an international friendly. GB hasn’t even bothered entering since 1974, so why is it now deemed so important to risk our very future on participation?
Make no mistake, this BOA/FA instigated fuss is all about selling tickets, and it has been shamefully backed by a British media keen to sell newspapers and raise viewing figures. English politicians with no interest in the game have suddenly appeared to give backing to the idea when there is political capital to be made. And this isn’t the first time that has happened either.
In May 1972, a motion in Parliament proposed after England had been easily defeated by West Germany suggested the formation of a combined United Kingdom side. The issue often raises its head when one of the other home nations can call on the talent of a genuinely World-class player – we’ve seen it with Giggs and Bale recently, but in this instance, it was George Best that the English coveted. Mr Cledwyn Hughes, MP for Anglesey responded to the motion cheekily: “If Welsh football players were released by the league to play in international matches for Wales, then Wales would be a match for England, West Germany or any other country.”
As football grew in the Australasia, Africa and Oceania regions, those associations understandably demanded more places for their national sides at the World Cup. They looked across enviously at the UK, with its politically dominant role on the International Board, and also at the anomaly which allowed one political nation to send four representative teams to compete in international tournaments. Wales were under threat from South America too, as Uruguay pledged to ask FIFA to force the formation of a combined United Kingdom side. In August 1972, the IFAB were forced to make certain concessions to Uruguay on the understanding that FIFA’s President made a clear statement validating the UK’s unique status.
I presume that the required re-assuring statement was made by the President, Stanley Rous, but nobody ever mentions it now. And its modern irrelevance should stand as a clear warning to anybody who believes that FIFA assurances are worth anything in the long term. FIFA Presidents will say anything to further their agenda and protect their empire. Sepp Blatter may now be making assurances, but the danger remains that somebody will soon stand for FIFA election on the attractive ticket of forcing a permanent combined UK team. The heavy irony of English media and politicians offering Blatter’s word as a guarantee of Wales’ future football independence would be laughable were it not so dangerous.
Parts of this article were taken from “The Red Dragons”, my forthcoming book on the story of Welsh Football, to be released in 2012.