This Olympic football malarkey, it was all so simple at one time......
It may come as no surprise to hear that over 1.5 million tickets are still available for the football events at next year’s Olympic Games. After all, while most other sports prioritise Olympic success, the World Cup remains football’s pinnacle, internationally at least.
That is not to say London 2012 will not matter to those involved. Brazil, for instance, are the game’s most famous and successful nation and are desperate to win Gold for the first time, while Nigeria’s surprise success in 1996 is still ranked alongside their two Africa Cup of Nations titles.
Back home, however, certain football associations are protesting, perfectly reasonably, it could be argued, at the very notion that their players are even being considered for selection. Britain’s own representation at the games has long been the subject of debate, whether it be in the pub or in parliament.
However, amid the current controversy and confusion, it is worth noting that Great Britain has, in a sense, already tasted Olympic footballing success.
In 1900, Upton Park FC, a mainly amateur outfit from East London, were invited to represent Britain at the Paris games. Here they beat the USFSA - a French representative side that would later morph into the FFF - 4-0 in an exhibition match.
Because the match was not included on the official Olympic card, no medals were awarded. Indeed, the entire 1900 event was essentially a sideshow to the World’s Fair that was taking place in Paris at the same time, so details of the game itself are few and far between. The estimated attendance of 500 saw a brace from J. Nicholas and further goals from Arthur Turner and James Zealey secure a routine victory for Britain.
So disorganised and under-prompted were the Games in Paris that the events were spread over five months and many of the 1000 athletes involved did not know they had even competed in an Olympic competition.
As if to highlight the point, the football tournament was originally set to include four teams, including one from Germany and Switzerland, but both declined to enter. Belgium were also selected to send a team, but could only muster a ramshackle XI made up of a selection of students, a few professional players from the national league and even a couple of non-Belgians, including a Englishman, Eric Thornton, who lived in Brussels at the time. The USFSA eventually won the tie 6-2, despite trailing at the break.
In keeping with the mood at the time, the East Enders returned home to literally no fanfare. However, the IOC have retrospectively awarded gold, silver and bronze medals to Britain, France and Belgium, respectively, the latter being awarded, presumably, for simply accepting the invitation to take part.
Upton Park, when originally founded in 1866, were a strictly amateur outfit and were one of the fifteen clubs that contested the first FA Cup in 1872. Most of the playing squad were well-to-do ex-public schoolboys drawn from the predominantly upper class area of nearby Forest Gate. Occupations of the players ranged from surgeons to solicitors, stockbrokers to surveyors, barristers to clergymen and accountants to tea merchants.
Despite not a great deal being written about the club, Charles Alcock, a supremely influential name in the development of the game, held a position between 1869 and 1872 along with future England international Clem Mitchell.
Contrary to popular belief, there are few links between Upton Park and their neighbours West Ham. It is fitting, however, that that the amateur’s original home ground, West Ham Park, is situated between the Boleyn Ground and the Hammers’ future home, the Olympic Park.
The lack of information on the first football event at the Olympic Games is not surprisingly considering it was only incorporated retrospectively, but it should be noted the ease with which the IOC have interchanged Upton Park with Britain and the USFSA with France in the official history of the Games.
That would perhaps explain their current stance regarding the British team for 2012. They have left the BOA to organise the situation, perhaps not appreciating the local politics involved, and no doubt they are perplexed at the Celtic nations’ protestations.
That said, even they must have winced at the heavy handed way with which the BOA announced it had reached an “historic agreement” between the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Football Associations, when in fact it had not consulted them at all.
Despite the various arguments that currently cloud the issue regarding a British football team, the current rules for Olympic football squads are simple, even if the logistics are not.
Eligible players must be 23 or younger in January 2012, with three overage players allowed. Of course, player involvement in the European Champions in Poland and Ukraine next summer will be taken into account and it seems that the players themselves will ultimately have the final say regarding whether they play or not.
With this in mind, it must be pointed out, that after another gruelling domestic season, not to mention domestic and European cup campaigns, as well as a major international tournament, that the Olympics will be low down on the majority of players’ priorities, despite cheerleading from the likes of David Beckham.
Just like in 1900, it is possible that an all-English XI may end up representing Britain next summer. However, with international football on these shores in its current state, it is unlikely that there will be a repeat of a Gold medal winning performance, regardless of who plays.
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