The Struggle to Create a Unified UK Soccer Team

The Brits, Irish, Welsh and Scots prefer to play against one another even in Olympics

By Scott Ross
|  Tuesday, Apr 17, 2012  |  Updated 4:33 AM PDT
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Scottish Rangers player Steven Whittaker in action during a Premier League game between Hibernian and the Rangers in Edinburgh, Scotland. Players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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"Absolute madness."



That was Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's reaction in 2008 when he first heard of Great Britain's plans to field a unified soccer team -- Team GB -- with players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Great Britain hadn’t fielded an Olympic soccer team in more than 50 years, but with London hosting the Games, it seemed like a good time to get the band back together, so to speak.

The plan was to round up the 15 best footballers age 23 and under (plus three of any age) from the four home countries to compete as Great Britain, the one nation recognized by the International Olympic Committee, similar to the way Great Britain handles creating teams in other sports.

That was the plan, anyway. Turns out Salmond was right.

Nationalism, sports, politics and the European Championship have thus far proven too much. And this is one public spat that truly doesn’t seem to be about money. But with the Games only a few months away, the only player who seems like a lock to make the team is David Beckham, who campaigned heavily for London to win the honor of hosting this year's Games.

What’s the rumpus? Start with the fact that the first Football Association was founded in England in 1863, and a decade later the Scots followed suit with their own FA. The two teams are bitter rivals who have played against each other more than any other two international teams in the sport's history, with England holding a 45-41-24 edge.

Imagine if the Red Sox were told they could compete in the Olympics, but only if they wore Yankee pinstripes, and then you would only begin to understand the resistance to Team GB.

While the IOC, like the United Nations, considers the home countries to be a single entity, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) considers them to be four distinct nations, an opinion many of the natives share. The football associations from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fear that if they play as one team for the Olympics, it will be only a matter of time before FIFA forces them to do the same for other international tourneys, despite assurances from FIFA's leaders that it won't happen.

One complication that's been cleared up for Team GB coach Stuart Pearce is the ruling that came down from FIFA requiring soccer teams to release under-23 players for the Olympics. In what looks to be an effort to keep the peace, Pearce has promised not to select any players who've just competed in the Euro Cup, which runs from June 8 to July 1.

Pearce sent letters to 191 soccer players inviting them to tryout for the team, and only seven wrote back to reject his offer--but he only asked for RSVPs from players who had no interest in playing, meaning there's no way of knowing how many are actually in favor of playing.

None of the home countries' football associations is barring their players from competing for Team GB, but it's been made clear that such a move would be frowned upon.



Simon Evans, a sports writer for Reuters and co-author of "The Rough Guide to European Football," says none of this should come as a shock.



"With the Olympics taking place in London, they wanted to have a team, and it's very tricky process. I'm not surprised it's ended up the way it has," says Evans. "They've always had this separate thing, and every Scotsman and every Welshman and every northern Irishmen and every Englishman has grown up with their nation having its own team, there's never been a British team."

Evans, an Englishman, acknowledges that players from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales playing for Team Great Britain, under the Union Jack, and standing for "God Save the Queen" lacks a certain appeal for many of their countryman.

"If you're Welsh and that’s what you get, or Scottish and that's what you get or Northern Irish and that's what you get, you've lost something that's been part of your sporting identity since you were born, that you watched with your grandfather. I think it' simple as self-preservation."

No doubt making matters worse for the home countries is that Pearce, an Englishman known in his playing days as Psycho, was named coach, and the new uniforms recently unveiled by British designer Stella McCartney are essentially a big Union Jack wrap—everything about the team is British.

Having players from the home countries on the same pitch under one flag? Unthinkable, says Ian Thomson, founder and editor of The Soccer Observer.

"As a fan, purely as a fan of the Scottish national team, you have no interest in teaming up with your rival, it's the antithesis of what sport is about," declares Thomson, a Scotsman who's been in the states for more than five years. "It's purely a sporting rivalry, it's so ingrained as a fan, I would have no problem supporting an English athlete in any other sports—but with soccer, you just don’t do it."

To understand just how deep resistance is to Team GB, consider for a moment the alternative for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: no soccer players at the Olympics.

Ironically, as much as Thomson dislikes the idea of a unified Olympic team, there's a part of him that doesn’t care about the Summer Games. He's got bigger fish to fry.

"I think the other issue you have that is unique to soccer, as opposed to other sports in the Olympic games, where people would have no problem at all supporting an English athlete, or a Scottish athlete who's performing under the Great British banner," explained Thomson. "But in soccer you have the soccer World Cup, you have the European championships, you have the individual leagues in Scotland, England, elsewhere—European competitions. I don’t the Olympic games are that big a deal that people are concerned about it."

Gareth Evans, director of the hit martial arts film "The Raid," is a Welshman born and raised, following Swansea and his home FA since he was a wee lad. But he's spent the last few years living and working in Indonesia, and he finds the whole Team GB controversy puzzling.

"What’s this now?" a befuddled Evans asks when told of the issue. "In the Olympics, all the other sports are represented by Great Britain, right? It’s not like the Wales running team, it’s the Great Britain running team."

"If it gives other players an opportunity to go onto a world stage, then that’s a good thing… If I could play football, and be selected for that? I’d be proud. I’d like to do that, to be able to go to that event. I don’t really get the controversy about it to be honest. They should all f***ing grow up."

Ironically, whether they all grow up or not may be largely beside the point, as Scotland may be hard pressed to offer up (albeit reluctantly) a player good enough to make the squad.

"Probably not these days, because generally we're not that good at soccer," said Thomson with a laugh. 

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