THE England squad’s success in reaching the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup, only to lose to Japan courtesy of the cruellest of injury-time own goals by defender Laura Bassett, reignited debate around a British football team competing at the Olympic Games.
England’s run to the latter stages in Canada should have been enough to qualify them for the 2016 Games in Brazil.
And although Britain took part in the football competition at the London Games in 2012 there will be no representation next year.
Gill Coultard, a former England captain, took to the airwaves to praise the team’s efforts and call for them to be allowed to compete next year in the Rio Olympics under the Team GB banner. Although now familiar with this debate, it was what Coultard said next that struck a chord with me.
She lamented that despite qualifying she herself had been denied the opportunity of competing at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
This took me back to Budapest and a snow-covered pitchon a March afternoon in 1996.
I was a young goalkeeper who had recently broken into the Aberdeen first team and was a regular in the Scotland under-21 side. We were getting to the business end of the campaign to qualify for that summer’s European Under-21 Championship finals in Barcelona. Having topped a tough qualifying group after wins in Athens against Greece and over Russia in Moscow, thanks to goals by Charlie Miller and Dougie Freedman, we faced a quarter-final against Hungary over two legs, with the winner going through to the finals tournament which at that time featured just four teams.
Down to ten men for most of the first leg in Hungary, before a packed and partisan crowd that strangely had access to large quantities of rotten tomatoes that they were keen to dispose of, we were pleased to escape with a 2-1 defeat and fancied our chances in the return at Easter Road a fortnight later. With Scotland leading 2-1 in the second leg, a late Simon Donnelly goal gave us a 4-3 aggregate win and a place in the finals.
We were euphoric. No Scottish under-21 team had reached a finals tournament (unfortunately none has since) and we looked forward to competing in Barcelona against Spain, France and Italy in a bid to become European champions.
In the days following, however, we were also told that by beating Hungary, and at worst being the fourth-placed team in Europe, we had also qualified for that summer’s Olympic Games in Atlanta. That had never crossed our minds. We knew footballers could get to the top of their profession and compete in World Cups, but they couldn’t be Olympians, could they?
A very brief campaign started to allow our young Scottish side to represent Team GB in Atlanta. But there was no real momentum for us to go, least of all from our own association. We forfeited our place and our defeated opponents, Hungary, became Olympians in our stead.
Now, almost 20 years later, this debate is revived. British Olympic Association chief executive Bill Sweeney has said that he is “disappointed” that there will be no GB football sides in Rio next year but, he says, “It is absolutely [the BOA’s] wish to have a football team competing for Team GB in 2020 [in Tokyo]”.
Former sports minister and chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan, himself a silver medallist at the 1980 games in Moscow, has now pitched in, raising the matter in the House of Lords. He describes opposition to a British team as being the result of boardroom politics, marking out the Scottish and Welsh associations for particular criticism.
Despite the absence of any change to the status quo as existed before London 2012, the idea of the four home nations coming together once every four years is still resisted, especially by the smaller associations. Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Reagan has said that London 2012 was a one-off decision made because London was hosting the games. The Welsh and Northern Irish associations repeat a similar “one-off” line in dismissing the idea for 2016 or 2020.
However, it isn’t true to say that 2012 was a one-off. Since the first serious inclusion of a football tournament, at the 1908 London Games, football has been present at every Olympics (with the exception of 1932) and from 1908 to 1960 a British side competed (from 1964 to 1972 a GB team entered but didn’t qualify). And, with three gold medals Great Britain remains (with Hungary – it would be) the most successful men’s Olympic football team.
Also, the suggestion that the individual associations’ autonomy might be threatened by competing together doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The International Olympic Committee delegates the running of the Olympic football tournament to Fifa. Fifa’s applicable statute, “Regulations for the Olympic Football Tournaments”, invites all associations affiliated to Fifa to participate in qualification for the tournament. Whether deliberate or not, Fifa’s regulations do not say that affiliated associations must also have a National Olympic Committee. Only Great Britain has a NOC, so such a stipulation would bar any of the home nations from competing. Fifa has never suggested altering its regulations in this way and neither has it ever hinted that it would like to see the amalgamation of some of its members, specifically the British quartet, into one member. In fact, Lord Moynihan has written confirmation from Fifa’s Executive Committee stating that the special dispensation given to Team GB to field a joint team does not in any way jeopardise the separate status of the individual nations.
There are examples of the four home nations competing separately but coming together for the Olympic Games. Last year’s Commonwealth Games most noticeably demonstrates that. In team sports hockey is a good example. Scottish international goalkeeper Veryan Pappin competed for and won a gold medal with Team GB at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and Scots Laura Bartlett and Emily Maguire won bronze at London 2012. And no-one bats an eyelid when (invariably) the best Scots are called upon to represent Team GB at the Winter Olympics to do battle for curling gold.
The IOC and international governing bodies clearly have no problem with the home nations coming together in an Olympic year to compete for Team GB. Their governing statutes offer no legal impediment. What might be open to challenge is the inequitable situation where Team GB has four countries attempting to gain a place at the Olympics when everyone else has only one shot, but that has yet to be tested.
Ultimately, the powers that be will determine the fate of football in Rio and Tokyo, but I wonder if our Scotland team had gone to Atlanta in 1996 whether we might have gone on to achieve something like the success France, Italy and Spain enjoyed. We’ll never know.
• Derek Stillie is an associate with Brodies LLP in Glasgow