This article titled “Stuart Pearce prepares for parlour games over British Olympic team” was written by Owen Gibson, for The Guardian on Thursday 20th October 2011 18.30 UTC
For an enterprise supposed to be about bringing the nation together in a flag-waving orgy of patriotism, the genesis of the first Team GB football team to play in an Olympics for half a century has been nothing if not divisive. The Football Association has gone through three chairmen since it first claimed that the circular concerns of the home nations over whether supplying players to a British team would undermine their independence in the eyes of Fifa had been squared.
Since then the FA general secretary, Alex Horne, has been chivvying away behind the scenes to seal an uneasy compromise that was announced in June – and promptly drew loud complaints from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. None of the home nations is happy at the prospect of its players appearing at the Games fearing that, whatever Fifa says now to reassure them, it will be thrown back at them at some future date. But the FA and the British Olympic Association are convinced there is little they can do legally or practically to block players if they want to play. Gareth Bale, they figure, is unlikely to be cast adrift by Wales if he goes against their wishes and plays.
The debate over the home nations will not go away but it is likely to recede – the parlour game of who should make the final squad of 15 under-23s plus three over-age players aside – and give way to a more familiar club-versus-country tussle.
The final of the men’s Olympic tournament is scheduled for the same weekend as the Community Shield, with the tournament taking place when clubs are deep into pre-season. Many will be embarking on the usual money-spinning tours and may have to leave big names at home.
Stuart Pearce’s recent tussles with Arsène Wenger over Jack Wilshere and Sir Alex Ferguson over Danny Welbeck could pale into insignificance if clubs dig their heels in. Lionel Messi was forced to take legal action to force Barcelona to release him for the Beijing Olympics and it may be no coincidence that his name was mentioned several times by Pearce on Thursday. “They have seen Messi as the role model. Major tournaments, especially on home soil, don’t come around very often,” said Pearce. “I think there will be a real groundswell from the players who want to be part of this.”
The hope of the BOA, the FA and Pearce, the British men’s team manager, is that the pull of playing in a home Games will encourage players to put pressure on their clubs to release them and that public opinion will also weigh in their favour. Pearce vowed not to be swayed by commercial or political considerations and said he would pick his 18-man squad on “form and fitness” alone. But he will come under huge pressure on both counts.
The London 2012 organising committee is sitting on 1.7m unsold football tickets while every ticket put on sale for the 25 other Olympic sports has been sold. There remain valid questions over how much of a draw the national game will be at the Games, which come weeks after Euro 2012, at the one time when it is overshadowed by other sports. A star on the scale of David Beckham, a visible figure in the entourage when the Games were won for London in 2005 who has made it abundantly clear he sees appearing at 2012 as a fitting international swansong, would help.
Nor has it gone unnoticed that Adidas, the tier one Olympic sponsor which will be manufacturing the Team GB kit and hopes the football shirt will be one of its biggest sellers, has a long-standing relationship with Beckham. The BOA, meanwhile, with post-Games sponsors to attract and a feel-good factor to engender, would no doubt like to see a little of his stardust around the Olympic Village.
Inevitably, those tasked with ensuring every match sells out would feel more comfortable if Beckham and other big names such as Ryan Giggs, Joe Cole or Michael Owen were selected. All the while, the obsession over the three overage players may inevitably detract from the reason why nations such as Argentina and Nigeria take Olympic football so seriously as a youth development tool.
It is inevitable that Pearce will come under pressure to ensure a spread of home nations in the squad. After the wrangles involved in getting to this point, and the urge to swing the whole of Britain behind the Games at venues including the Millennium Stadium and Hampden Park, there will surely be pressure to ensure all four home nations are represented.
Picking his way through that minefield, with the questions likely to persist right up to the BOA’s 8 July deadline for naming the team, will test Pearce to the limit. Set against that are his memories of Euro 96 and a premonition of what it may mean to take a British side to gold at Wembley in an Olympic Games. Despite all the questions he is convinced the potential prize is worth it.
And for Hope Powell, who recently overtook Walter Winterbottom as England’s longest serving manager, there is very little downside. If her team can reach the latter stages, there is the potential prize of using the Olympics to catalyse a long hoped for step change in the profile and commercial potential of the sport.
For all the distractions created by the men, it could be the women who ultimately benefit most from the uneasy birth of a British team.
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