Friday, 14 November 2008

Squaring an egg-shaped circle

What is the difference between this:

and this?
I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm very much against the idea of a British football team competing at the London Olympics in 2012. But I am very aware of the claim of hypocrisy which may well be levelled at me when I support the British and Irish Lions as they take the field against World Champions South Africa at rugby union next summer.

So, why do I feel that I am able to support a team which is put together once every four years to compete against some of the best in the world at one sport but not another?

To be honest, I'm not sure. And I don't know how smart it is of me to try to offer an explanation without resorting to some distasteful comments about sport and class. But I'll try.

First up is, I guess, the historical aspect of it. The Lions have toured either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa on a four-yearly basis since the 1950s, with their first test match played as far back as 1888. The Lions tradition is something I've grown up with. I can remember watching Jeremy Guscott (an Englishman my father loathed when playing in a white shirt) slot over a drop goal which won the series against South Africa in 1997. And, I guess, there's a point to be made there about drawing people together from each of the "home" nations (for the purposes of rugby union "Ireland" competes as one entity) and overcoming rivalries - despite knocking seven colours of s*** out of each other during the Five (now Six) Nations each year, the teams united to take on southern hemisphere opposition. Equally, the Lions tour has been a part of the rugby calander for such a long time. It is an established event and presents no risk to the independent rugby unions.

The same thing I do not think can be said of football. There is no historical precedent. Yes, GB has competed at Olympic Games but not since the 1960s. By the time 2012 comes round, that will be nearly 50 years. Also, and this is where I'll try not to play a class card, there is something more of an understanding among rugby fans than football fans. Go to any rugby game (as I will on Saturday, to watch Scotland v South Africa) and you can sit with opposing fans, enjoy the banter and generally get on fine - and no more so than in the pub pre- and post-game. Go to a football match, and you'll be segregated from fans of the opposing time for fear that rioting will break out. It is hard not to suggest that this is related to class, though I guess there's an aspect of the mindset that Scottish Unionist so easily finds on newspaper comments.

So what is my point? Well, I'm certainly not trying to say that rugby fans are better than football fans. What I guess I'm trying to legitimise is my view that it is fine to support a British and Irish side at rugby - but that a football side should not take the field. Of course there are many sides to this argument, but this is mine.

In the meantime, I'll hope Scotland can prove once again that they can do themselves proud in the coming week, competing against South Africa at rugby on Saturday and Argentina at football next Wednesday.


Anonymous,  14 November 2008 at 09:48  

I think a significant difference between the footballing situation and the rugby situation is the relative standings of the teams.

If there were to be a Team GB football team (and I suspect there won`t be in any real sense) it would be competing in an 'official' competition recognised by the governing body of the game as such (essentially being an U23s world championship).

The Lions rugby team, on the other hand, does not enter official competition and is essential just an exhibition team. In this sense it has the same standing as other 'exhibition' teams that have existed.

This includes football - cast your mind back to the Europe V the Rest of the World when Gordon Durie was brought on for Europe. The Europe team was exhibition only - Like the Rugby Lions team.

A Team GB football team would be in official competition; not an exhibition.

Stephen Glenn 14 November 2008 at 10:22  

Ah, put the Olympic team isn't a full senior side. There is a under 23 restriction on all bar two players (I think) in that squad. Therefore providing FIFA give concrete assurances that the four founder members will not lose status for this one off eventuality I see no issue. It is after all a one off and should be seen as such.

The British Lions also contain the anomoly that all Irish players are eligible even if not UK citizens.

Malc 14 November 2008 at 10:33  

Thanks for that.

Anon, I'm not sure I'd call the Lions an "exhibition" side but I think your point is right. They're not entering the World Cup or similar event as a side and therefore pose no threat no the unions that make it up. Indeed, a Lions call-up is seen here as the pinacle of your career.

Stephen, couple of factual errors, one major, one minor. Under 23 restriction is on all bar 3 players (not two - that's the minor one). And FIFA haven't given any "concrete assurances".

The major error is this. Since 2001, the team has been called "British and Irish Lions" on the basis that, as I mentioned in the piece, Ireland competes in international rugby as one entity. The name change was made to accommodate sensitivites despite "British" allegedly meaning the Isles and not having any political overtones... try telling that to the commenters that Scottish Unionist finds!

Also, what makes you think it would be a one off? If it is an under-23 international championship, there'd be Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish under-15, -16, -19 and -21 sides, they'd be banded together for under-23 qualifying for 2016, 2020 Olympics etc, then go back to their national full side. Disaster waiting to happen, I reckon.

Exhibit B,  14 November 2008 at 10:36  

The Lions are...and I`ll stress this exhibition side. Irish players take part on that basis.

A Team GB football team would be an Official what is an U23 world championship.

It doesn`t matter if its U16, U18, U21, U23, B Team, or Senior Team...all are official sides taking part in official compeitions recognised by the Governing body of the game.

Frankly the assurances of FIFA now means very little. There are numerous FAs around the world which question why there are 4 FAs in the UK & NI (which to be blunt are for historical reasons).

Can you guarentee that future FIFA high heid yins won`t use it as a precendent...I suspect not.

Malc 14 November 2008 at 10:42  

Exhibit B,

I suspect from your tone you're against the idea too. And you make the same point I do. I wasn't sure about describing them as an exhibition side - like the Barbarians - but I'm struggling to find a better descriptor. Maybe touring side? Other than that, pretty dead on agreement.

Stephen Glenn 14 November 2008 at 12:33  

Malc, I did say there was the proviso of FIFA concreting it up, and I wasn't 100% sure off the top of my head whether it was two or three overaged players for the Olympics. ;)

Bearing in my mind my football allegiences are with Northern Ireland you could understand why I would hope it was only as a one off exception. Otherwise there would be less aspiration for boys back home to kick a ball around (admittedly less likely on the street than in my day) as the national side goal would seem further off.

As FIFA does not hold tournaments at Under 23 level themselves (U-17 and U-20) this is a compromise tournament between the IOC and FIFA in the first place.

BTW Britain stopped entering the Olympic qualifying tournament only in 1974 when the FA did away with the amateur/professional designations.

Malc 14 November 2008 at 12:52  

Stephen. Yes... but they last qualified in the 1960s. Either way, its still a good while ago!

I'd hope it was an exception too - but I'd hope more that it doesn't go ahead. I don't think FIFA will provide assurances...

Football shouldn't be an Olympic sport anyway.

Sam 14 November 2008 at 13:27  

The Lions is fairly official in the eyes of the authorities as the IRB awards caps for it.

The tradition is indeed what makes it so important in the eyes of players and fans, and what distinguishes it from a potential GB football team.

I used to think that would be a good idea, mostly because I just like the idea of seeing a Lions-style football team. But as virtually everyone apart from England is opposed to it, it shouldn't happen. Its basically just part of Brown's ludicrous "Britishn Identity" agenda anyway.

Fotball simply isn't as tolerant as rugby. And there's no way it should be an Olympic sport.

Malc 14 November 2008 at 13:32  

It's nice when "serial commentator" Sam agrees with me...

"Intolerance" is a better way of putting it than I did.

And Sam makes a good point. Is there anyone outside of London that would get behind such a team?

Stuart Winton 14 November 2008 at 14:19  

In some ways I would say that trying to distinguish the Lions from the football scenario is arguing in favour of a GB football team - how "official" it is is one aspect, but surely the broader point is that it's different teams for different tournaments and scenarios. If tradition is brought into it then tradition holds that the Olympics domestic teams are constituted on a GB basis.

To an extent it might as well be argued that allowing the Scotland squad to play for club sides is undermining the concept of the national side.

But it's just different teams for different scenarios.

Stuart W

Stephen Glenn 14 November 2008 at 16:07  

Football shouldn't be an Olympic sport anyway.

Appearances at 24 out of 26 Olympiad would sugest differently. Maybe you're objecting to the porfessional taking part in the Olympics. But then personally as an "amateur" track athlete in the early 90s that Chariots of Fire argument does seem to have been confined to history and the IOC wants to put on the best show available.

Personally I'd love bowl to move from having it's highlight at Commonwealth level to Olympic level but that might just be for purely selfish motives. (ie the legs aren't what they were and I still want to attend an Olympics)

Malc 14 November 2008 at 17:00  


My point is that if the Olympics is not the peak of your career then why have the event there? Obviously a FIFA World Cup is a more important event for football, while tennis has four - arguably 5 if you include the Masters Cup - which are of more value to individual concerned than the Olympics. On that basis, I'd argue that it shouldn't be an Olympic sport - nothing to do with pro/amateur distinction.

Incidentally, as an "amateur" athlete, what are your PB times for your events?

Stephen Glenn 18 November 2008 at 16:29  

I'll have to dig out my official PB's as these days, all these years my time trials in training, official and non-verified times are all somewhat of a blur.

Survice it to say I could officially were Sub 4 gear with total honesty.

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