The Great British conundrum


The formation of a Team GB football team for the London Olympics leaves Seán O’Neill wondering if this should become a permanent solution to an age-old question

With the inception of a Great Britain football team as part of Team GB at the recent Olympics, an argument has arisen to whether a team consisting of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be in place, at not only the Olympics, but in all international competitions.

With the lack of success in recent years for the home nations, there are whispers that the amalgamation of the British Isles could be seen as a step towards creating a team with the ability to compete on the international stage.

Scotland haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1998, Northern Ireland have only qualified for three World Cups (with the last being in 1986) and Wales have had one solitary appearance at a World Cup, in Sweden in 1958. England have consistently qualified for major tournaments, but always flatter to deceive and seem as far away from winning a trophy as ever, with 1966 being their one moment of glory.

England are the leading home nation, and are currently third in the world according to the FIFA rankings, but are in danger of being left behind due to new standards and methods being set by technically superior nations such as Spain and Germany. The European Championships during the summer only served to enhance this theory.

In the quarter-finals, the more technically astute Italians had 63% possession. Luck was the only thing in England’s favour after they somehow managed a goalless draw, but eventually succumbed to their tournament tradition of failing in a 12 yard shoot-out.

England averaged 39% of the possession in their four games at the tournament, their lowest figure at a major finals since 1980. They also averaged 300 passes per match, while the four semi-finalists had 479 passes on average.

In contrast, the Olympics can certainly be considered a success for the Team GB footballers. Despite another penalty shoot-out defeat, this time in the quarter-finals to South Korea, there were many positives to extract from the tournament as a whole. Little was expected of a squad largely comprised of players who had little experience on the international stage.

The Olympics being a U23 competition gave a massive amount of experience to younger players. Also, large numbers turned out to watch the team in Wembley, Cardiff and Old Trafford. The experience of playing competitive games in front of over 70,000 people will stand to the younger players.

The mind-set and method in which the football is thought at grass-roots level within Britain must be addressed. A new start might be what the game needs in the UK and a collection of players from all four countries might help them make the step to the next level. Would England be able to make the breakthrough if they had players such Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Darren Fletcher, Aaron Ramsey and Jonny Evans at their disposal?

This ‘experiment’ with the GB football team at London 2012 paid off in major fashion. A medal may have been beyond the reach of the British boys in their most popular sport, but the support and backing they received was immense. Their presence alone sent out a message to the watching world of how Team GB embraced every aspect of the Olympics. Why should this atmosphere be confined to the Olympics?

The team at London was packed with youngsters, but also included players like Ryan Giggs, who is 38 and hasn’t played at international level for over 5 years. If the team included players from the current international setups of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a gold medal would have been a near certainty for the GB football team and the basis would be laid for further glory with a stronger squad of players being able to compete at tournaments.

The usual sight of teams bowing out of competitions early or not even qualifying for them in the first place would be a thing of the past. For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fans the prospect of combined British team would certainly mean expectations would rise and period of success would surely be on the horizon.

Despite the many pros that can be found to suggest that a Great Britain team would succeed, there are many obstacles facing the inception of a team such as this one. Some fans would not be so welcoming of the fact that their nation loses independent status as a footballing nation.

Even before the Olympics, there was opposition to the team as many felt it jeopardised their position in world football. Many passionate fans feel the home nations have a long standing tradition and this is something they will fight bitterly to retain. If the respective bodies reached a decision whereby the four home nations join together, the fans would view this as the ultimate act of treachery.

Various political issues would be raised within each nation, with objections from different sections of society. For example, the notion of Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland to form an All-Ireland team has been mooted for a prolonged period of time. The question of whether Northern Ireland should be part of a Great Britain football team would be raised on this island as well as across the water.

The team will have just as many detractors as optimists. Despite the support it will receive there will be purists from each corner of Britain who will feel they are betraying their nation’s core values. It is a complex and complicated issue that looks like being shelved for years to come.