It’s Only a Game: ‘Team GB’, Football and the Nature of the UK

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, June 22nd 2011

The story of the ‘Team GB’ football project entering next year’s Olympics has been rumbling on for a few years. Some people will think this is a sideshow and only about the game of football, but instead it goes to the heart of what the UK, who runs it, and how it is seen internationally.

‘Team GB’s’ role in the 2012 London Olympics was lauded by the British Olympic Association’s (BOA) claim of ‘a historic agreement’ with the other football authorities. This was quickly denounced in a joint statement by the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish football authorities who said they had ‘collective opposition to Team GB participation at the 2012 Olympic Games’.

What is going on can be judged at a footballing level, and at a much wider and significant level. The BOC’s declaration of a ‘historic agreement’ was nothing of the kind. Instead, it was a blatant, transparent attempt to try to appeal to Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish players above the heads of their national associations. In this it was nothing short of dishonest, calculating and counter-productive.

Then there is the historic situation of the UK made up of four separate football associations – an anomaly in world football and FIFA caused by the Football Association in 1863 and Scottish Football Association in 1873 – becoming the first national associations in the world.

There is an English exceptionalism in all of this. They have chosen to take the soft words of FIFA that a ‘Team GB’ wont affect the four home nations independence at face value. What the English have failed to note is that ultimately a ‘Team GB’ isn’t just a threat to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish status, but the English too. It still seems rather peculiar that the English miss this obvious fact: that their own self-interest could be undermined by FIFA and international precedent. This despite Sepp Blatter and everything that has happened in the World Cup bid process!

There once was a Great Britain football team. It took part in the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games winning both of them, although the 1908 London Games team was the English national amateur football team and also the Great Britain team; such were the days. They didn’t compete in the Olympics again until the 1948 London Games, last playing in the finals in Rome in 1960, and playing their last match in 1971 losing 5-0 to Bulgaria.

The United Kingdom and its four nations have changed since Great Britain played two friendly matches against the Rest of Europe in 1947 at Hampden and 1955 in Belfast. The first was held to celebrate the return of the four nations to FIFA in 1946 – and contained 5 English, 3 Scots, 2 Welsh and 1 Northern Irish players in the blue of Scotland and winning 6-1. This in front of 135,000 spectators and gate receipts of £35,000, which were giving to FIFA!

How times have changed. The ‘Team GB’ football project cannot be seen in isolation and just about football, even in an age where the game has become a substitute for so many emotions of ‘collective joy’. Gordon Brown said after the 2008 Beijing Olympics that ‘the British public would find it strange if there was no British team’. This provoked Alex Salmond to respond that Brown ‘must be seriously out of touch with Scotland’ to support such an idea.

What Brown’s comments illustrate is that the whole ‘Team GB’ project is part of the bigger, ambitious and ill-fated project of ‘Great Britishness’ and late nation building. This is about trying to weave together a collective story and project of Britishness, on the football field, in sport, culture, and public life, and it is just too late for it. That doesn’t mean the breakup of Britain follows automatically, but that such cack hand enterprises are doomed to fail.

There does seem to be under the Cameroon Conservative coalition a deliberate and conscious attempt to brand as British national moments and events from the Royal Wedding to next year’s Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This is the late Britishness project and running through it is a fear of letting England and Englishness emerge, become active and conscious, and naming and realising itself.

This is a futile and pointless politics which the farce of ‘Team GB’ reveals; annoying the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, but at the same time continuing English exceptionalism and the silencing of the majority nation and people of these isles. It cant and wont continue, for as PJ Harvey said, ‘Let England Shake’.