Gary Speed is a proud Welshman but even he is sad there will not be a Great Britain team created for the London Olympics. In an exclusive interview with chief sports writer Luke Edwards he explained why it could not happen
FOR most of us it should have been a victory for common sense, an opportunity to forget our petty island squabbles, the jealousy, the wars and historical grievances.
For once, surely, the politics could be cast aside and Britain’s footballers could unite under the colours of the Union Jack?
After all, is that not the whole point of the Olympic games, to bring people and nations together in sporting competition once every four years?
The eyes of the world will be on London next year when the games are held on this small island for the first time in 64 years.
It will be the summer in which we should be proud to show off our capital city, proud of our country, proud of our sportsmen and women. For three weeks we can be proud to be British, not just English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, as athletes from Cornwall to Aberdeenshire, from Suffolk to Gwent are given our unqualified and unbridled support.
At least that will be the case in every sport except for one because, although there will be a British football team, it will be in name only.
Instead of a rainbow squad selecting the best young players from all four home nations, only English players are allowed to play because the Football Associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have refused permission for theirs to take part.
It is a ban induced by fear; fear that Fifa, so long jealous of the power of the home nations who gave the game to the world, would use the creation of a British team in the Olympics as a political weapon to wipe out their independence.
“It is a shame there won’t be any Welsh players to represent the country in the Olympics,” said Gary Speed, the former Newcastle midfielder who has taken up the challenge of turning Wales into a credible international force.
“I’m sure the players would like to be involved in something like that.
“It’s going to be an amazing event for Britain, but politics have got in the way and the bottom line is the Football Association of Wales is the most important thing.
“Because it’s in London, it would have been nice if we could have had a British team, it’s going to be a special occasion for the whole of Britain, but we can’t trust Fifa.
“They don’t recognise Britain as a country and the Olympic Association don’t recognise Wales and Scotland as countries.
“If we had sent Welsh players to play in the Olympics as part of a British team, what happens in the future to the autonomy of the FAW? We feared it would come back to haunt us in terms of the independence of the FAW and its future in the international game. There is a suspicion it would be used against us in the months and years that followed.
“The FAW is the third oldest football association in the world behind England and Scotland and we do get benefits because of that in terms of votes and so on. It was important the FAW survived for another 120 years, rather than the Olympics got a British football team for a tournament once every four years.
“As fantastic as it would have been, the potential cost was too high. The risk was too much for us, the Scots and the Northern Irish to take. It’s a shame, but there are too many politics involved. Politics have ruined it.”
It says a lot about our attitude towards Fifa that, even though football’s governing body offered an assurance home nation autonomy would not be jeopardised by a British Olympic team, nobody believed them.
The home nations are the only four associations which sit on the International Football Association Board, which is responsible for the laws of the game.
It is a privilege Fifa have long resented, mainly because they wish to control the rule book absolutely, not in partnership with those who invented the sport they now govern. Then again, nobody should doubt the strength of the rivalry between the home nations either, as this weekend’s European Championship qualifier between England and Wales in Cardiff will underline.
The match will only be Speed’s second in charge after the former national team skipper quit as boss of Sheffield United to replace John Toshack in December. Many have tried and failed before him to turn Wales, one of Europe’s smallest nations, into a side which has a realistic chance of qualifying for a major tournament. It is a feat they have managed just once before when they played in the 1958 World Cup.
Speed said: “Every single Wales manager has sat here before me and said they want to get Wales to a major tournament, but I do believe we can. It isn’t just about qualification. Slovenia have done it, so have Latvia, so have the Republic of Ireland.
“Countries like ours can qualify, but I want us to be competitive.
“It is going to be hard, but it can be done.
“We’ve got a group of players who could be together for the next ten years. We need to have a team ethic, young players brought in alongside experienced ones. That’s what we had at Newcastle and it’s something I believe we can replicate.” Speed – who has 85 caps for his country – unfortunately can not call on the player Fabio Capello regards as the best winger in the world, Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, for tomorrow’s match.
Bale clearly represents Wales’ future, but as good as he is, Speed is wary of attaching too much importance to one player.
He added: “Wales have had world class players before. We have to get the team right so that we have 35 or 40 players competing for a place in the squad. We need a pool of players, not just a couple of star names because those players aren’t going to be able to play every time and in the past, when we’ve lost our big players, we’ve struggled.
“It would be great if Cardiff or Swansea can get into the Premier League. They’ve got a lot of Welsh players in their squads and the experience of playing in the Premier League will give the national team a lift as well. It would be great for Welsh football.”
It’s just a shame the Olympics will not be.