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No Team GB

November 4, 2011

Recent publicity shots of Wales internationals Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey modelling limited edition Team GB Olympic shirts caused anger among Wales fans opposed to the combined team. I was one of them. As I tweeted this week, this wasn’t and isn’t an issue of anti-English or anti-British sentiment or Celtic chippiness. It’s a genuine and sincere concern that a combined British team could spell the end of international football as 60 million Britons recognise it. Not just us Celts, but the English too. This isn’t fearmongering. For a comprehensive read on the No Team GB movement visit their official website – No Team GB.

To illustrate why fans are so worried about the threat, here’s an excerpt from the Q & A page:

There is a real and present threat to the very existence of our international teams if a Team GB competes at the London Olympics. This would set a dangerous precedent of competing as Team GB which may endanger our special status within FIFA.

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are members of FIFA due to special statutes endorsed in 1947 as a direct result of saving FIFA from bankruptcy after the war. The Home nations hold 4 of the 8 votes on the International Committee (the guardians of the rules of football) as well as automatic Vice-Presidency of FIFA.

This power within FIFA is looked on with envious eyes and our special status has been called into question several times over the last 30 years. All it would take is a 2/3rds majority vote at any FIFA General meeting for our international teams to disappear forever.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter recently gave assurances that the Home Nations would not be forced to merge even if they established a Team GB and allowed it to compete in the 2012 London Olympics – is he not to be trusted?

Neither Sepp Blatter nor Jerome Valcke are in any position to give any such assurances. FIFA operates as a democracy, and it would be 2/3rds of the FIFA members that would decide on the future of the home nations teams, not any one individual. Absolutely no official (from FIFA or otherwise) is in any position to make any guarantees as to how any of the member states may vote in the future.

Sepp Blatter actually released a completely contradictory statement in March 2008 when he said:
“If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team.
If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency?

This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.”
This warning, from the most powerful man in football, should leave every football fan in no doubt as to what is at stake here, the very existence of our International Football Teams.

I’m not interested in engaging in personal attacks on Bale, Ramsey, Joe Allen of Swansea or Craig Bellamy who have expressed support for the concept. I’m not going to make knee-jerk statements endorsing the banning of said players from the National team. I don’t want to speculate on whether they have been badly advised, exploited by agents and sponsors, or intentionally undermined the FAW in their actions. I want to explore the implications of the worst case scenario for not just supporters but also the players, in a way that the average fan can relate to.

What would a Team GB mean for Wales and the other nations involved? To cut a long story short, they could all, including England, see their individual status revoked by FIFA. In the simplest of terms, it would mean that English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish football supporters would be without a representative team on the international stage. There would obviously be a Great British team to support, and I’m sure some fans would be comfortable with this, but the opportunity to express one’s self as unique and separate sets of supporters would be taken from us. At least in FIFA sanctioned events. If, for instance, Wales wanted to continue playing in an unofficial capacity, we would be relegated to playing other ‘unrecognised’ national teams such as Kosovo, Catalonia, Greenland, Tibet, and Gibraltar etc.

I’m not sure the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Darren Fletcher, Charlie Adam, and Jonny Evans would be motivated by away trips to Iraqi Kurdistan or Southern Sudan, let alone be allowed to travel by their clubs. As I’ve stated, this wouldn’t be restricted to the Celtic nations. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere and Adam Johnson might have secure futures as fixtures in a combined British team, but would players on the fringes, who earn vast amounts of money and are vital to the future of Premier League teams want, or be allowed to play against Guernsey, Isle of Man or the Falkland Islands? I’m thinking of players like Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling or Daniel Sturridge who play for the most successful, highest paying clubs in England, are genuine contenders for an Olympic berth as Under 23’s but far from guaranteed an international future. They could hypothetically be ending their international ambition by making themselves available for selection.

By choosing to play for a Team GB, the players are effectively leaving their, and every other aspiring footballers international future in the hands of FIFA. Without detailing an exhaustive list of the allegations and proven instances of corruption, bribery and elitism involving FIFA officials, suffice to say I would not entrust them with deciding my future career options with integrity and compassion.

It would also be naive not to consider the influence of sponsorship from the leading kit manufacturers, who would profit from a successful Olympic tournament from the cream of British youngsters, but would also not want their clients devaluing their talent by lowering themselves to representing non-FIFA nations, in far-flung corners of the globe. The time spent travelling, the time away from their clubs, the risk of injury and fatigue would be highly undesirable for sponsors and clubs alike. So away from the 30 or so players representing Team GB in meaningful competition, there would be a whole generation, or generations, of players in international limbo, an involuntary exile.

Another factor that players and fans should be aware of is that of who would manage a GB team. Would they have club or national allegiances that may influence squad selection? This has been an issue with the British & Irish Lions in rugby union. Accusations of bias towards English players under Clive Woodward’s charge were well founded. He chose to select his ageing World Cup winners in a year when Wales had won the Grand Slam playing scintillating rugby. That among many other factors contributed to a disastrous tour on many fronts. Aside from that particular instance there have always been charges of pro-England bias when selecting Lions squads due to the influence of the RFU, as well as accusations of an over-representation of Irish and Welsh players on the last tour in 2009 from various quarters.

In this hypothetical scenario, with no England team, it wouldn’t be paranoid or conspiratorial to assume that the Team GB manager would be whoever is in line to be the next England manager. It stands to reason that the traditional powerhouse, with all its influence and the overwhelming number of supporters would supply the inaugural coach, despite the fact that Scottish managers have enjoyed far more success at club level. The popular choice for the England manager’s role is Harry Redknapp. What would his selection look like? I have no doubt that as his club manager, Gareth Bale would be ensured a starting place. But what about Aaron Ramsey? The most talented Welsh player of his generation, and captain of an emerging Welsh team. If Harry decides that he would prefer a midfield of Scott Parker, Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard, with Frank Lampard in reserve, and that James Milner, Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher are more experienced options, Ramsey has effectively consigned himself to the international wilderness by playing for the Olympic team.

As well as this there has been a widely acknowledged, if not official policy, of Lions selectors making political selections from weaker nations to ensure representation from all four countries, whether warranted or not. How would the likes of Craig Bellamy, Gary Cahill, Leighton Baines or Darren Bent feel if their opportunity of a major tournament was denied by the selection of, with no disrespect to more than decent players, Chris Brunt, Phil Bardsley, Darcy Blake or Craig Mackail-Smith? We can debate whether the former players are even worthy of selection, but as players who have consistently performed at Premier League level for many years, they would be ahead of the latter players in the pecking order.

If Redknapp was bypassed in favour of a ‘politically’ motivated contender to appease the Celtic nations, such as Martin O’Neill, Paul Lambert or Brendan Rogers (other non-English candidates could include David Moyes, Owen Coyle, Tony Pulis, Alex McLeish, Alex Ferguson or Kenny Dalglish) would they be more inclined to display bias towards their particular club or national allegiances? This may only be a minor quibble for professional footballers who deal with selections issues on a weekly basis. But from a fan’s perspective this would cause friction and discord. Even within our individual countries there are issues arising from club rivalries, on the pitch and unfortunately off it. Expanding this to national rivalries would only exacerbate matters.

Whether such rivalries are immature or not, and whether we should rise above them is irrelevant in my view. It’s a vital element of football, and part of what makes it so exciting. The debates, the chants and songs, the passion, the tension, the bragging & bravado on derby days, the eating humble pie and heartbreak when you lose. As long as it doesn’t descend into jingoism, distasteful songs (eg Munich, Istanbul, Harold Shipman, Yorkshire Ripper, Aberfan) or even violence, let it be.

A Team GB may well be popular enough to fill Wembley, the Millennium Stadium or Hampden Park, but they won’t be the fans that travel to Baku, Podgorica, Vilnius, Minsk or Tirana to watch Championship players play out 0-0 draws. I can assure you that no Welsh fan who turns up to watch his team play Luxembourg or Armenia in a half empty Liberty Stadium or Parc Y Scarlets will pay to see a GB team just because Gareth Bale is playing. I would bet a large sum of money that 99% of the Tartan Army would feel extremely uncomfortable sitting among fans waving the Union Flag. By the same token, how would the more extreme element of the English support react to groups or individuals dressed as William Wallace? It’s sad to have to admit it, but it’s inevitable that friction would also arise along the sectarian divide between certain sections of the Scottish and Northern Irish fans. The depressing reality of the kind of people that attach themselves to football clubs means that there is a real risk that Team GB matches could be the perfect excuse for pre-arranged battles. There is also the possibility that ‘banter’ could turn nasty given how so many people react when alcohol and football are combined. I’m not using these factors as a reason why a Team GB shouldn’t exist, as that would be admitting defeat to those who damage the good name of the game and its fans. I’m merely laying bare the issues that would create division and disillusionment in my worst case scenario.

In reality, I predict that in the most part the ‘genuine’ diehard fans of the national teams would either reject the concept from the outset, or drift away gradually when the reality hits home. I feel that initially, English fans would be the most likely to embrace the combined team. Firstly, because they would provide the lion’s share of the players, but secondly as, in my experience, for them, being English and British are pretty much the same. When many English people speak of England they actually mean Britain and vice versa. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. So backing a Team GB wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to begin with, but I’m convinced that the novelty would soon wear off, and once any of the hypothetical scenarios I’ve highlighted manifest themselves, they would lose interest entirely. My prediction is that as a result, Team GB would only be followed by nouveau, Sky era, armchair, glory seeking, plastic, prawn sandwich eating, supporters. International football would be a sanitised, watered down, husk of its former self, devoid of soul and passion.

What would become of the supporters betrayed by out of touch players and self serving politicians? Would the divide between players and fans broaden beyond repair due to the resentment? Would clubs suffer as a result? Would we end up supporting ‘rebel’ unofficial national teams made up of semi-pro, non-league players? Would we see boycotts and revolts, marches & protests? What would the repercussions be for the FAW, SFA & IFA? Would they lose out on vital revenue from international matches & sponsorship, crucial for developing grassroots, domestic football?

A Team GB at London 2012 appears to be a certainty, so the answer to these questions look set to be answered in the coming years. Many Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English supporters are a lot angrier about the prospect of a Team GB and it’s consequences than I am, so my speculations and predictions may be played out sooner rather than later. Just say no.  No Team GB.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. rhys "badgers" permalink
    November 5, 2011 11:16 pm

    top blog rhys. agree 100%

  2. Hendre permalink
    November 11, 2011 12:46 pm

    Slightly off topic … I know we have yet to find out the exact circumstances which led to Mike Dye’s death at Wembley Stadium (accused back in court next week) but what has struck me is that I can find no public statement of regret from a single senior figure in English football, nor from Hugh Robertson, who usually is only too eager to give his opinion on footballing matters. My suspicion is that this isn’t to protect the reputation of English football but to protect Wembley/London as an Olympic venue. How sick is that.

    • November 11, 2011 8:00 pm

      I think you’re probably right. When it happened the press seemed more eager to absolve English fans of blame than show sympathy. Then there was the muck raking by the Sun…..

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