GB Football Team: Tug of War

In Tom Bodell’s latest piece on the GB Football Team he looks at the tug-of-war developing over the selection of players.

The Olympic Games are not far off now and suddenly the prospect of a Team GB competing in the football seems a lot more real. Yesterday, 24th April, saw Stuart Pearce & Hope Powell’s charges take a large step towards kick off with the respective groups being drawn. Last week saw Pearce whittle his pool of players down to 80, and in three weeks time we will know exactly who will be representing these Isles this summer.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the squabbling over who will be going as an almighty tug-of-war continues between Pearce and the player’s clubs well as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

To make one thing clear, there are no rules to prevent Pearce calling on the services of non-English players for Team GB this July, however, what the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish do fear is the recriminations of their only football authorities in the future.

If you ask me, the idea that players of Gareth Bale or Stephen Fletcher’s ilk are seldom available to the Welsh and Scottish FA’s anyway, and without trying to sound patronising, it would be very daft to exclude such names in future squads simply because they took part in a one-off opportunity of a lifetime.

Football luminaries have been coming from all directions to back their own players in recent months with Glasgow Rangers boss Ally McCoist throwing his weight behind Steven Naismith’s chances whilst Craig Bellamy has been a vehement supporter of Welsh inclusion. Players too have been quick to state their desire to play with Welsh skipper Aaron Ramsey putting his late manager Gary Speed in something of a predicament by voicing his opinion on the matter last year.

The issue as the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish football associations see it is that they could lose their right to be independent football nations under FIFA rule. However, Jim Murphy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence was able to quash this concern after meeting with FIFA General Secretary, Jerome Valcke.

“I’m a football fan, I’m a Scotland fan, as well as being the secretary of state and I share the concerns that many people had about the impact it might have on the Scottish national team. That’s why I met Jerome Valcke, the general secretary of FIFA, yesterday and told him about my concerns and the concerns that many Scots have. He confirmed that FIFA, of course who regulate football, that the executive will agree that this one-off under-23 tournament could take place and it will not jeopardise the status of any of the home nations and I think that’s very welcome news.”

That quote is from 12 November 2008, some time ago now, which begs the question, ‘why are we still even having this debate?’ Frankly, it’s hard to understand, and without trying to pigeon-hole the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish into a label of being narrow-minded and overly-patriotic it seems to purely be down to raw tribalism that the three nation’s football bodies are so desperate for their players to resist the overtures of Pearce.

Pearce himself make an excellent point in suggesting that for a number of those he selects, this could be their only opportunity to play tournament football on an international scale: “Look at Ryan Giggs, for example. Everyone has always speculated about: ‘What if Ryan had been English and available to play for England.’ Now I am not suggesting that Ryan will be in the squad, make no mistake, but what I am suggesting is that it opens up the spectrum of players who haven’t played tournament football before.”

Predictably though, there is a new branch to this debate now, with Sir Alex Ferguson (who else?) lending his unsurprisingly United-centric opinion to the debate, labelling it ‘ridiculous’ that the Games, Euro 2012 and an England U19 tournament will all be played over the course of one summer, robbing him of so many key players. The Red Devils boss has seen 10 players named in Pearce’s preliminary 80 man squad and other players named in their respective pools for the tournament.

Neil Lennon, who has seen full-back Adam Matthews as well as midfielder’s Jamie Forest and Scott Brown receive letters asking whether or not they would interesting in competing, is lukewarm about the idea at best, but says he will not discourage the trio: “My view is that football is not an Olympic sport, although it is a great spectating sport. But that is my own view, not the view of the club but if the players want to go, I am not going to discourage it.”

Even with the Games zooming into focus it is clear this is a debate which will run and run until long after the first ball has been kicked on July 26 at Old Trafford.

The fall-out promises to be equally significant but beneath all the controversy and the sheer-minded determination to look out for number one will be the amazing spectacle of a Great Britain team playing together in harmony and that has got to be worth the hullabaloo that goes with it.

Tom Bodell

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords, documenting high-level football and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.