But not all teams are allowed the Olympic dream. Would-be Team Great Britain, despite representing the cradle of the sport’s start, finds itself on the outside once again. Old geo-political and sporting rivalries continue to deny their football stars the Olympic stage.
UEFA and FIFA both recognize England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as separate countries, which is in conflict with the International Olympic Committee, which only recognizes the United Kingdom as a single National Olympic Committee. In order to compete in the Olympics, U.K. athletes who otherwise would compete as Scottish or English must do so under the British flag. This isn’t an issue in other sports, even rugby or field hockey where the home nations also tend to compete separately in off-years. Yet it remains an issue in football due to the long-standing rivalry between the home nations, the intense passion for the sport, and their long independence within UEFA. The choice for Olympic participation in football comes down to Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish associations agreeing to either allowing an English team to represent the U.K., or all four associations agreeing to a blended team.
The latter was the solution in 2012, when the U.K. had the automatic right to enter teams in the London Games as Team Great Britain. Apparently the prospect of having a London-based football tournament without any U.K. athletes was too much, and such blended teams competed in both the men’s and women’s tournaments. And, they both made it to the quarterfinals. But that harmony was short-lived and quickly dead as soon as the Olympic flame went out. For this Games cycle, the old arguments came back: the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish claimed a fear of having their independence within football outside of the Olympics at risk, and refused to either allow England to represent the U.K., or to contribute to a combined team. Dare it be said, but perhaps a simple pettiness against the traditionally football-stronger England is at play as well. Regardless, earlier this year, England’s Football Association agreed to drop the issue.
Which brings us to today. The European teams earning trips to Rio will be decided at two current events, the FIFA Women’s World Cup (the top three European teams will make the women’s field) and the UEFA Men’s U-21 Championship (the top four to Rio). And, guess what? England is in prime position in both tournaments to make the cut. But if they do, and even if they win either tournament, the Olympics are out of their reach. And while bureaucrats and fierce home country fan loyalists back home may be content, the decision really simply affects the players and the larger sport growth. While it could be argued that an entertaining and competitive event could be had on the men’s side without Britain, the women’s tournament needs as many strong teams as possible. With England ranked #6 in the world, they would add a spark to the event in Rio in a women’s sport in dire need of as much firepower and athletic showmanship as possible to grow the game. What fun would it be to see dynamos Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze on another global stage? And, no doubt they and their teammates would cherish the opportunity. In the meantime, it is unfair and unsporting. Perhaps the further they proceed in competition today, the more awkward this situation will be for their association representatives. So, this Olympic fan is rooting for England to go far. And for the Olympic opportunity to be open for all.