As an Englishman, I was relieved to see England negotiate their World Cup qualifying group with relative ease, thus banishing the demons of the calamitous Euro 2008 qualifying campaign fought under the tragic stewardship of a hapless Steve McClaren. As an Englishman living in Scotland, I took great pleasure in seeing the Scottish national team fail to make it; tantalisingly close but once again falling short. I have to admit that I laughed when I heard the result.
Such a confession leads me to the point of this post; the United Kingdom Olympic football team for 2012 – who does it represent? There hasn’t been a UK team in the Olympics since 1960 and the vast majority of the players were English. As hosts of the 2012 Olympics, the UK automatically qualify for the tournament, yet the sticking point has been getting the four football associations of the home nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to agree to such a team. While the FA has been pushing for a united team, its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts are understandably against such a move, afraid that it would threaten their independence and set a dangerous precedent. FIFA have not exactly helped matters. Sepp Blatter has claimed that a UK team would not endanger the existence of the four nations while also saying that the reasons for having four teams instead of one will be questioned. It seems that no-one can win this.
If such a team could genuinely exist, who would be in the team? Apart from Ryan Giggs (even in the twilight of his career) and Darren Fletcher, would the rest of the squad be English? The Northern Irish Martin O’Neill could be manager, thus making the team ‘representative’. I readily admit that this is a somewhat Anglo-centric viewpoint and some might argue for the inclusion of Manchester United’s Jonny Evans or Sunderland’s Craig Gordon. However, it would still be a predominantly English team, although seeing as the English comprise the vast majority of the population, this could be a moot point. In the end, there has been a political fudge, allowing an English underage team to represent the whole country.
South of the border, many English cannot understand the resistance to a unified team, that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are being petty. Yet for many, being English is synonymous with being British. The national anthem of the UK, God Save the Queen, is appropriated by England at most sporting events (but not the Commonwealth Games), whereas the others have their own separate anthems. Many English fans will support the other nations; a form of benevolent paternalism, yet condescending. They will support the other teams when competing, wanting them to do well but not expecting them to do as well as England. When they beat England, the shock is palpable (the most recent example was when Northern Ireland beat England in a World Cup qualifier 1-0 in 2005). The smaller nations metamorphose into younger siblings, junior members within the union in the eyes of the English. Head north of the border and you realise that being British comes a poor second to being Scottish. Finding a Scot that will support England in the forthcoming World Cup will be rare, although not impossible. Dislike, even hatred of the English can sometimes rear its ugly head during these tournaments. With Scotland not in the 2006 World Cup, the Tartan Army had snapped up large numbers of Trinidad and Tobago shirts with “Scotland, 20” on the back (Jason Scotland, a T&T striker then plying his trade at St Johnstone in Scotland). This took on a greater significance when T&T played England in the group stage (England won 2-0). There is little sense of being British up here, especially in the highlands. With the Scottish National Party in government in Scotland, albeit a minority one, the question of independence from the union remains large. It seems that Britishness is a dirty word.
Come the 2010 World Cup, I will be supporting England. Come the 2012 Olympics, I will be supporting the UK soccer team. The question is whether the whole of the UK will be supporting them or whether it will just be the English? For those of you not from the UK, maybe it seems like just a lot of fuss about a small island…?