As Britain prepares to host the 2012 Olympic Games, a row has broken out over the composition of the national team for the country’s most popular sport: soccer.
The British Olympic Association (BOA) announced last week it had completed a "historic deal" with the English Football Association to field both men's and women's soccer teams under the “Team Great Britain” banner. Intended to improve attendance at the games – soccer is not much noticed at the Olympics – the move may turn out instead to be an “own goal” at the London games.
At least one national sporting hero has signed up to play. Los Angeles Galaxy star and former Manchester United player David Beckham told the BBC he was on-side for the move: "I'm an East End lad and being English born and bred, it would be something I'd be very honored to be part of.”
Note Mr. Beckham said English, not British – and therein lies the problem.
Patrick West, author of the book "Beating Them At Their Own Game: How The Irish Conquered English Soccer," says the real issue isn’t the Olympics, but setting a precedent that could wipe out the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish national teams.
“The UK is a quasi-federal state in which England is the biggest country and the other countries in the UK are scared of losing their Fifa [the international governing body of soccer] status,” he says.
As far as the Olympics are concerned, Britain is a single nation. As a result there hasn’t been a British Olympic soccer squad for 52 years. Britain last won a gold medal in the 1912 Games. The decision to revive the single British Olympic soccer team looks final, but some are worried the Games, especially those held outside London, will go largely unwatched as fans outside England turn away in support of their national squads.
The head of the BOA, Andy Hunt, said the national associations’ “very real considerations” had been “recognized, respected, and resolved.” But the associations beg to differ.
The Scottish Football Association says it agreed with soccer’s governing body, Fifa, that an English team would be fielded for the Olympics, but says its players are now being picked for the Olympics, potentially destabilizing the Scottish national team.
“No discussions took place with any of us, far less historic agreement been reached, prior to the statement from the BOA being released. The associations are committed to supporting the individual home nations playing all representative football under their respective flags,” said the chief executives of the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish football associations in a joint statement.
Chris Holt, sports reporter with the Belfast Telegraph and a keen supporter of the Northern Ireland – and his local Irish league – team Glentoran, says the row has all the hallmarks of traditional antipathy toward the English.
“It seems to me to be a small-minded approach which fundamentally comes down to the fact that they don't want to be associated with their nasty big brothers in England, whose players, in fairness would take up the majority of the places,” he says.
But with so many high-profile international soccer tournaments, both for national and league teams, the Olympic competition, with or without a row over the squad’s composition, may be little more than a sideshow.
“In my opinion, high-level football, like tennis and golf where the competitors earn vast sums of money, has no place in the Olympics. Going by the low uptake in ticket sales, I feel the British public share that point of view," says Mr. Holt.