suggested reading: team GB and the home nations edition
Several weeks ago, I mentioned that not only is Olympic men’s soccer a U-23 tournament, but there have been tensions over the very existence of a British soccer team. Now that we’re a week away from the Olympics, it’s time to investigate this further.
It turns out that Britain has not fielded an Olympic men’s soccer team in 50 years.
Poor old Team GB. Has there ever been a less keenly cherished national team than Stuart Pearce’s collection of 13 Englishmen, five Welshmen and the absent friends of Scotland and Northern Ireland?
The reasons for the historical sense of unease are clear enough….Mainly, though, it is the issue of mingled identities that has dogged British Olympic football through its distantly grand history. Assorted English amateur selections won gold at the Games of 1900, 1908 and 1912, after which a dispute over the inclusion of professionals curtailed Olympic involvement until 1936. Post-war, amateur home nations teams competed at every Games until 1972, after which Britain as an Olympic footballing nation simply ceased to exist, stymied by further wrangles over amateurism and muddled by misgivings among the home nations over their enduring status within Fifa.
The situation is even more stark for British women: until this year, there has never been a British women’s Olympic team.
The fielding of these two British teams is happening for only one reason: Olympic host nations qualify automatically. But it’s becoming clear that, for a country as soccer-mad as the UK, enthusiasm for this particular medal opportunity (at least for the men) is surprisingly low.
The first issue surrounds the inclusion of non-English players (i.e. Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish athletes). Of vital importance here is that the United Kingdom is a nation of nations, and this is shown clearly in international team sports like cricket, rugby, and soccer. The organizing bodies of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are worried that taking part in a British team would threaten their FIFA-sanctioned status as nations and their future ability to play as independent nations in international competitions, or put another way, that in future, there would be a single Britain team, representing all four nations. The individual associations made their concerns known early. In 2009, after years of wrangling, the three Celtic nations declared that they would not participate in a team GB, but they would not stand in the way of an all-England team. But these pronouncements held no legal weight; players could not be barred from playing for the newly-formed teams.
Playing in the Olympics is for some an especially appealing prospect, since Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland haven’t traditionally been good enough to qualify for either the World Cup or the European championship. For other players, however, national identity trumps concerns about international glory. Scotland’s Julie Fleeting announced last year that she would not be playing for team GB.
Fleeting, who plays for Arsenal, has ruled herself out. The 30-year-old has backed the stance of the Scottish Football Association, which believes any involvement could affect Scotland’s independence as a football nation.
Fleeting told the Scotsman: ‘My thoughts are these: first and foremost I am a Scottish international, and that’s the most important thing for me. The SFA [Scottish Football Association] make all the decisions in terms of the national team. I would definitely not step out and say I would like to play for Team GB.
‘What I am saying is I would like to play for Scotland for as long as I am selected. I am delighted to pull on the jersey. That’s the most important thing for me. I know it’s the most important thing for all the girls that I play alongside. I would not want to jeopardise that.’
‘Obviously the Olympics is a fantastic stage but I am Scottish through and through. It might mean our girls would not have the opportunity to play for the national team in the future because some of us went to play for Team GB. That’s not a risk any of us are willing to take.’
Ryan Giggs has confirmed he wants to play for Team GB at the London Olympics even though his presence would disturb the Welsh Football Association.
The association, in common with the governing bodies of Scotland and Northern Ireland, fears that a Great Britain side will undermine the right of the four home nations to appear separately on the international stage. However, the 38-year-old is relishing the possibility of taking part and, alongside his former Manchester United team-mate David Beckham, is likely to be one of the three over-aged players allowed in the squad.
Giggs ended his career with Wales in 2007. It still left him with a hankering to appear at a major international tournament – Wales last did so when they reached the World Cup finals in 1958 – and Giggs is the only player over 23 at Old Trafford to have been given permission to take part.
Pearce could not find space for Beckham in his 18-man squad after a lack of defensive and attacking options led him to select Manchester City’s Micah Richards and Liverpool’s Craig Bellamy as two of his three overage players. That left the coach with a straight choice between Beckham and Giggs, with the latter’s more recent Premier League experience believed to have been a deciding factor.
It’s understandable, though. Giggs’s playing career has been exceptional, both in its quality and its length. (The man is 38.) And for all that, he’s never played in a major international tournament. Giggs will be the captain of the team.
And there’s still more mayhem. Not only does team manager Stuart Pearce have to negotiate these tricky minefields of national and cultural identities and loyalties, he also had a limited pool of U-23s available for selection. Why? Because England’s governing soccer body, The Football Association (otherwise known as the FA), declared that anybody who played in last month’s championships cannot be called up for the Olympics. The rule, according to Stuart Pearce last December:
‘We have agreed that any player who boards the plane to the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine will not be considered for selection to Team GB.
It would be one thing if that just narrowed the over-age possibilities. But actually, that eliminates a few key players from the Euros…
…like this guy (age 21)—and the guy providing the assist (23):
…and this guy (23):
The reason the FA cites seem (and probably are) reasonable: player fatigue. But that isn’t stopping countries like Spain from shipping off three players from their winning team to London. And while Pearce supported this decision in December, now that he’s had to actually pick a roster, he’s less happy.
Stuart Pearce has placed himself on a potential collision course with the Football Association after criticising its insistence that, Jack Butland apart, no player involved in Euro 2012 could also feature in Great Britain’s Olympic squad.
Well aware that Spain’s Olympic squad includes three players who featured at Euro 2012 – Javi Martínez, Jordi Alba and Juan Mata – the former England left-back believes he should have been permitted to pick from a wider talent pool.
‘I’ll continually send the same message out that we have to take our best players to every tournament. Not just for the sake of the manager or the coach but for the players themselves; they have to experience tournament football.’
This is a less than ideal setup for a successful campaign. David Beckham’s exclusion has probably turned away some casual fans, even as some journalists are suggesting that Beckham’s exclusion may be a good thing.
Although Beckham now suffers from a chronic lack of pace and mobility, even if he can still unleash a few Pirlo-esque passes, there was arguably a case for naming him in the squad on exceptional dead-ball ability alone. Giggs, though, is currently a bit more versatile – as well as possessing the added benefit of being Welsh and thereby bringing geographical balance to the squad.
In many ways the antithesis of the celebrity culture which surrounds modern football, Pearce is also among the least likely to have been swayed by Beckham’s fame. Indeed he may instead have harboured real concerns about the media circus which invariably surrounds a man who appears to spend as much time modelling underwear and cosying up to politicians and royalty as actually playing football these days.
Beckham’s predilection for the limelight could well have provoked a muttering of discontent. Moreover the potential chemistry between the LA Galaxy midfielder and the notoriously straight-talking Craig Bellamy – another overage Welshman in the squad very much on merit – may have proved combustible.
Organizers are reducing capacity across the soccer venues by a half million seats, a response to ticket sales figures. Meanwhile, former players/current commentators are trying to rally support for the team. See Gary Neville, for example.
All of this leads to certain questions:
- for other Olympic and Paralympic sports, the Celtic nations are enthusiastic and valuable participants in the British sporting effort. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, for example, is Welsh, as is star hurdler-turned-commentator Colin Jackson. And while Andy Murray strongly asserts his Scottish identity, he nonetheless gladly plays for Britain. So why do some sports (team sports?) require independent teams while other sports can fall under the rubric of Britain?
- Are the stakes higher for Scotland, the one home nation most likely to achieve independence?
- What is FIFA getting out of continuing to allow the home nations to have separate teams? Are there similar concerns with the rugby and cricket organizing bodies?
- If the British teams progress through the tournament, will we see increased support? And if we do, who will be doing the supporting? The English? Or a broader British base?
In the meantime, for more thorough arguments about maintaining these three autonomous Celtic teams, here are some links.
- Welsh historian Martin Johnes insists that Welsh players who choose to play for team GB are running the risk of undermining Welsh international soccer.
- A debate between a pro-British football politician and an anti-.
More to come on this.
Today’s addition to the outstanding goals of the tournament collection, complete with a great sideline celebration from the coach.
Croatia’s head coach, Slaven Bilic, has delivered the strongest condemnation of racism yet and insisted that sanctions must be imposed in order to stamp out the problem forever. His words come two days before Uefa is due to make a decision on the punishment handed out after a banana was thrown on the pitch and around 200 fans made monkey chants during Croatia’s 1-1 draw with Italy last Thursday.
Asked whether he expects a similar punishment, Bilic did not shirk the issue. Instead, he called for stern action to be taken. ‘[Racism] is a big problem all around Europe and all around the world and on behalf of the entire nation, not even as a football manager, I want to say that I am really disappointed as a Croatian, a parent, and a sportsman, a person who comes from a modern, open-minded and tolerant state,’ he said.
‘Everyone is welcome in our country. I don’t like these kind of supporters and nor do my players. I live in Croatia and we really are a tolerant country. We are not a racist country and we are angry at these few crazy supporters. We have to put sanctions [in place] and stop these kind of supporters forever.’
Rio Ferdinand has criticised Uefa after European football’s governing body banned Nicklas Bendtner for one competitive fixture and fined the striker €100,000 (£80,383) for exposing sponsored underwear in Denmark’s European Championship defeat to Portugal last Wednesday.
Ferdinand, the Manchester United defender, wrote on Twitter: ‘Uefa are you for real??? £80,000 fine for Bendtner for underwear advertising…. all of the racism fines together don’t even add up to that?!
‘Uefa are not serious… Platini was a great player but him & his colleagues alienate themselves with exactly this type of rubbish. If racism made money for Uefa like advertising does do you think Uefa would take it as serious?? #priorities’
Dumb move of the week goes to UEFA, which fined Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner nearly $126,000 Monday and suspended him for one World Cup qualifier for a stunt in which he celebrated a goal by pulling up his shirt to reveal an advertisement on his underwear. I can understand the market-driven reasoning for UEFA’s heavy fine, but it’s completely tone-deaf for UEFA to fine Bendtner so much more than the fines UEFA has given to national associations for incidents involving racism and crowd violence. What kind of message is UEFA sending? That protecting its sponsors is more important than taking a real stand against racism and violence. And that’s embarrassing.
catching up on UEFA’s approach to racism
Although there haven’t been any racism incidents rivaling the kind shown on Panorama’s “Stadiums of Hate,” fairly credible reports of abuse against two black players have surfaced, and UEFA has had to take action. Czech player Theodor Gebre Selassie confirmed that he heard abuse during the Czech Republic’s match with Russia, although he did not file an official complaint. To my knowledge, Mario Balotelli either didn’t hear the taunts or isn’t saying that he did, but UEFA’s investigating abuse from Spanish and Croatian fans towards the Italian striker. The abuse at the Croatia match also potentially involved one banana thrown onto the pitch, but the evidence for that is a picture of a steward with a banana in his hand.
Things to note:
- To this point, Polish and Ukrainian fans have not been accused of any of this. Poland played the Czech Republic on Saturday, and no reports have surfaced. Ukraine played France (one of the teams with a large black contingent) on Friday, and no reports have surfaced.
- Is it simply a coincidence that the two players abused so far have been the only black players on their teams?
UEFA is making all the right noises, opening investigations, etc., etc. But the incredibly severe penalty (€100,000 plus a one-game suspension) assessed to Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner for flashing underwear during his goal celebrations that had an unauthorized sponsor label on the waistband puts UEFA in a bad light. Recent penalties imposed on nations whose fans have abused players with racist taunts pale in comparison to Bendtner’s punishment.
One person who is taking a firm stance is Croatia’s coach, Slaven Bilic, who has categorically condemned the actions of Croatian fans.
I’ll be posting a series of responses to the disconnect between UEFA’s crackdown on sponsor violations and the organization’s more tepid penalties for racism.
One final note: The game with the most potential for racist fan ruckus is tomorrow’s match between England and Ukraine, for a number of reasons. The journalism that broke the story of racism in Poland and Ukraine was produced by the BBC. Like France, the England team also has a large number of black players. The match is happening in Ukraine and against Ukraine, so there’s the possibility that more of the fans who normally attend local club matches might attend this match. Similarly, English fans are streaming into the city: over the past few days, numbers have apparently doubled from a pretty meager 5,000. The match is also very high stakes: it’s the elimination round. Each team can go through if they win. Only England can go through on a draw. So the potential is there. Apparently there are posters plastered around Donetsk announcing Ukrainian hooligans’ intentions to fight. But really, there’s no way to know until we watch the match tomorrow.
The first former Soviet-bloc nations to host the quadrennial tournament have spent almost $39 billion getting ready, including $25 billion in Poland and $14 billion in Ukraine. Besides accommodating an expected 1 million soccer fans, the two countries are betting that new stadiums, roads, and other infrastructure will help give a nice boost to their economies and local companies.
So far, it hasn’t worked out that way. Three of Poland’s biggest construction companies have declared bankruptcy in recent weeks after running up hundreds of millions in losses on Euro 2012 projects.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is saddled with $6 billion to $8 billion in debt from the championships—more than the $4 billion Greece lost on its financially ruinous 2004 Olympics, says Anatolii Baronin, an analyst at Kiev-based research group Da Vinci.
When the [Champions League] started it was the ultimate football spectacle during the group phases — just as we are seeing in this event — because it genuinely pitched the best of the best against each other.
Even when the extensions allowed the strongest nations to have four qualifiers, it improved the format.
Then Platini decided weaker countries deserved the chance to welcome Barcelona and Bayern Munich into their stadiums.
The group stages of the Champions League are generally predictable and dull now. You might get the occasional surprise, but it only gets the juices flowing once you reach the last 16.
The World Cup is the same. It’s more of a celebration of football than a glorious exhibition. I’ve never played in a European championships and I regret it. I was in the 2004 squad but didn’t feature.
There is a different mental preparation when you know you have to be on your game from the first match.
There are no Mickey Mouse games in this tournament and you can’t say that about the World Cup.
Jakub Blaszczykowski, Poland v Russia
A tremendous goal in any context, but the weight of history on the fixture, and the tragic backstory, multiplied the impact as Poland’s captain cut in from the right, lashed his shot into the Russian net, and sent Warsaw wild.
Poland’s coach Franciszek Smuda has a big decision to make tonight, whether to recall Wojciech Szczesny or retain the understudy who saved a penalty with his first touch against Greece as substitute for the dismissed Arsenal goalkeeper, and has kept superbly since. Must be on Premier League clubs’ radars.
Theodor Gebre Selassie
It has been a good tournament for attacking right-backs with France’s Mathieu Debuchy and Lukasz Piszczek of Poland also impressing. The Czech Republic’s Selassie, of Slovan Liberec, is available for €2m (£1.6m), but hurry, Werder Bremen are closing in
notes on yesterday’s matches
France v. Ukraine, 2-0
Sadly for Shevchenko, Ukraine couldn’t replicate Monday’s heroic efforts. This match was most notable for the weather. Did I miss something or do soccer matches routinely continue during thunder and lightning? I was surprised that the match started at all, given that the anthems were upstaged by loud claps of thunder. Then when the umpire stopped the match a few minutes in, the impression I got from the commentators was that his decision was based not on the lightning but on the standing water. Yet, as former goalkeeper/now commentator Kasey Keller mentioned, it’s all well and good for the players who are running around on the open pitch, but the goalkeepers spend the entire time standing near large metal posts, which can’t possibly be safe. So I’m confused. I get the standing water/ball handling issues, but surely players aren’t supposed to play under threat of lightning, right?
England v. Sweden, 3-2
The Three Lions had one mission: remain in contention after the first two matches so that Wayne Rooney’s return on Tuesday means something. DONE. Let’s be under no illusions: England hasn’t miraculously become one of the top teams in this tournament. But the three England goals today were fantastic: the Andy Carroll header of beauty, the Theo Walcott goal out of nowhere, and the sensational Danny Welbeck backheel flick. Defending was decent, although to be honest, I was more impressed by the blocks made by Germany’s Boateng and Ireland’s (yes, Ireland’s) Dunne. Hart remains impressive in goal: while there were a few dicey moments, his save of a powerful Ibrahimovic strike with just his fingers tells the tale.
Thoughts about the final round of the group stage
- There are only two teams that are definitively out: Ireland and Sweden.
- The Netherlands might as well be out, but there is a series of events that could happen that would qualify them. (What those combinations are, I’ll leave to somebody else to explain.)
- I would love for Ukraine to get through, but to do so, they’d have to beat England, so unfortunately, my support must go elsewhere.
- Tomorrow: I’d really like Poland to get through. Błaszczykowski’s goal on Tuesday was so sensational that it alone means that Poland deserves to go through. Not to mention the really sensational work of reserve keeper Przemysław Tytoń, who not only saved a penalty kick the moment he replaced Wojciech Szczęsny but then did stellar work during the second game which Szczęsny had to sit out. (And there needs to be at least one host country in the knockout stage.)
- I understand the purpose of the simultaneous scheduling, but still: I’d rather watch both matches back to back than either toggle back and forth or make a choice.