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Pointless Provincialism, Olympic Soccer Edition


I briefly flirted with writing about this, but what’s the point?  By all accounts, including that of the PSNI, the UVF started it, and the “dissident Republicans” shot back.  Whatever.

London (and England, and even a bit of Wales) is hosting the 2012 Olympics.  Normally, this wouldn’t pose a problem to the host nation aside from bleeding out vast amounts of cash for limited material benefit.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland aren’t a normal nation, however, when it comes to soccer.  For historical reasons, FIFA recognize the “home nations” of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as independent entities for international purposes.  This extends to the rule-making body; with eight votes, the International Football Association Board sets the rules of association football.  The home nations have four of those votes, FIFA the other four, and six votes are required to effect any rule change.

This anachronistic arrangement would be analogous to the Basque Country and Catalonia having their own international sides, or Quebec, or Bavaria, or Utah.  Furthermore, unfortunately for the UK, the IOC doesn’t play by those rules.  For the UK to have a representative soccer side at the Olympics, it has to be under the rubric of “Team Great Britain”.  Team GB want to have a side at the Olympics for the first time since 1960, and will draw players from England, Scotland, Wales, and NI.

Which, logically, has pissed off three of the four home nations.  Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are fearful that their inclusion in an aggregate Team GB could, possibly, cause FIFA to question their autonomy.  It doesn’t matter that FIFA have repeatedly stated that this would have no effect on the virtual independence of the home nations according to FIFA; these wee nations are jealous of their footballing autonomy.

I have no problem with this quaint arrangement.  David Goldblatt argues in his excellent The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer Football, nations, especially small nations, expressed themselves in an international context via soccer.  International soccer became a symbol, and identity, of the nation.  Goldblatt uses Uruguay as one of several examples, arguing that Uruguay as a nation-state had little logic beyond great power machinations (analogous to Africa) thus it relied heavily on success in soccer as a symbol of the nation (and some success it was: World Cup winners in 1930 over Argentina and 1950 over Brazil).  This can be readily generalized to the home nations.  Lacking any of the institutional infrastructure common to the nation state (until 1998 not even a “national” legislature), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland look to soccer (and with the former two, rugby union) as symbols of their ersatz independence.

I understand why they’re jealous of this autonomy, and I don’t want my Welsh, Scottish, or Irish friends back in the UK to read this as an argument against said autonomy.  It’s not.

That said, not participating in the Olympics under a unified Team GB is just silly.  FIFA have made it clear over the past three years that a one-off Olympic team will not undermine the autonomy of the home nations.  The squad itself, consisting of 18 players, will be a U-23 squad save for three players without age restriction; in other words, not a full international side in any event.  Soccer matches will be hosted in Scotland and Wales in addition to England.  The English FA have the written approval of the three other home nations to select their players, which itself is meaningless, as legally according to the IOC the English FA have the right to choose any player eligible to play an Olympic sport for Great Britain regardless.  Furthermore, in rugby union the four home nations combine quadrennially to form the British and Irish Lions, who tour southern hemisphere nations.  Last I checked, the autonomy of neither the English, Welsh, Scottish, nor Irish RFU has been questioned as a result.

Finally, for the players from Wales, Northern Ireland, and even Scotland, the 2012 Olympics might represent the only opportunity that they have to play in a serious international tournament.  Scotland on occasion have a chance to qualify for tournaments, and nearly did so for Euro 2008, but the last tournaments Scotland participated in were the 1998 World Cup and the 1996 European Championships.  Northern Ireland has only participated in the World Cups of 1958, 1982, and 1986; the only ever appearance of Wales in a major tournament was the 1958 World Cup.  In qualifying for Euro 2012, Wales are doomed already, while Scotland and Northern Ireland find qualification highly unlikely.  Indeed, the current bright hope of Welsh soccer, Gareth Bale, said last month:

“I want to play in the Olympics. I think it would be a great experience.  You see it with the British and Irish Lions in the rugby, they come together as a unit and play against other countries. It’s great and there’s no reason why that can’t happen with the football.  At the moment Wales haven’t qualified for a major tournament in I don’t know how many years so it would be nice to play in one against the best countries in the world.”

Or, one might adopt the attitude of former Scotland manager Craig Brown, who said in 2009:

“If there is an insistence on having UK representation, why not allow all four teams to compete?  Football is already a special case in the Olympics because it discriminates by only allowing players under 23 to compete, so why not allow the four sides from the UK?”

Because, until Alex Salmond passes a referendum on Scottish independence, Scotland isn’t quite a real country, yet?

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