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TeamGB at the 2020 Olympics and its struggle with tokenism

‘Cause tonight is the tonight that four [countries] become one [Olympic nation]

Olympics Day 7 - Women’s Football Q/F - Match 22 - Great Britain v Canada Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The Olympic football tournament has historic significance in men’s football but means far less in global terms since the inception of the Men’s World Cup. However, for women’s football, it remains one of the premier tournaments. An event open to the world with a markedly smaller pool than the World Cup, the Olympic football women’s tournament is a gruelling two and a half weeks that typically bring a new meaning to the idea of there being “no easy games.”

After eight years away (or just one Olympic Games), Team GB will again be represented on the pitch with all the requisite football associations in the United Kingdom agreeing to let England qualify as the entire island (it’s complicated, okay?) The “nominated nation,” England’s fourth-place finish at the World Cup this summer saw them clinch the third and final available UEFA berth for the tournament. Thus, fans will see Team GB take to the pitches in Japan next summer.

There is something admittedly messy about having Team GB at the Olympic women’s football tournament with each country in Great Britain [and Northern Ireland] reporting to a separate FA. The longstanding argument was a potential loss of autonomy but given the weight they can throw around as founding fathers in modern football it’s rather a faux argument.

For those around Britain, the ever-present question is about the make-up of the squad. In 2012, Powell opted to comprise her squad of 16 English players and two Scots (with a further Scot and one Northern Irish international listed as reserves), the lack of Welsh players a contentious bone - not least because Cardiff was hosting matches over the tournament. Powell’s argument was simply that her squad selection was based on form rather than making sure the squad was equally sliced up but does the team need to be palpably Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish in order to garner support?

Can TeamGB ever be truly British?

We can all hope that the countries come together and back TeamGB, including the women’s football team, but it’s that same question of can TeamGB ever truly represent the constituent parts: Will it ever be Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish enough? When it comes to TeamGB at the Olympics, it seems to be a question that only plagues football. After all, no one complained when Chris Hoy bested fellow Scot Ross Edgar in the men’s Keirin at the 2008 Olympics; no one was crying out for more Welsh men on the cycling team. When the men’s gymnastic team claimed the all around bronze in 2012, no one said, “Hang on a tick, why aren’t there any lads from Northern Ireland in the team?”

Those who represent TeamGB aren’t there to tick a box. No one scurries around shouting, “BUT WE NEED MORE WELSH OLYMPIANS!” during the athletic qualifiers. Those who make the team are the best in their sport and for that heady window over the summer once every four years, the specifics of where they come from fade away. Bethany Firth might be the pride of Seaforde (County Down) but when she collected a highly impressive three golds and one silver at the 2016 Paralympic Games, she was to many, just British.

When Zharnel Hughes or Tiffany Porter cross the finish line wearing lycra stamped “Great Britain” no one at home is thinking about Hughes’ Anguillian accent or Porter’s upbringing in Michigan, all they see is someone whose part of TeamGB.

Old rivalries put to rest

For the British, #TeamGB is truly a coming together of all the composite nations of the United Kingdom. Whilst Andy Murray might be thought of wet boring Scottish sponge by some in England when they watch Wimbledon, as soon as he’s representing GB, he might as well be from down the road; 30-love? We bloody do! Colin Jackson and his inoffensive dulcet tones are well welcome on athletics commentary after his hurdling history for GB, his Welsh background instantly forgotten.

Olympics Day 4 - Women’s Football - Great Britain v Brazil Photo by Jamie McDonald - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Whilst Kim Little is as Scottish as they come, the pride of Mintlaw (which does indeed sound exceptionally refreshing), there is not one person born on the southern side of the border who wouldn’t be shouting her on with everything in them if she was wearing the union jack (again). And much more than tennis, the partisan English have very specific views about the Scots (although admittedly, English woso is general more “pro” than “boo” Scotland – however, it may not be a two-way street).

Yes, the Olympics and TeamGB may not bring the islands together in these Brexit Times, not least because we would have all died of food, water and medicine shortages by then, but the Olympics are still generally that special event that brings people together. As many experienced over the World Cup (men’s and/or women’s), everyone takes an interest and the commonality breaks down walls. For Britain, the Olympics are like that on crank. It’s not just north and south getting in on the love in, but each country contributes, representatives from each nation all wearing the same spandex, singing the same anthem, helping GB get one over the other countries on the medals table.

Whilst it’s true that the Great Britain team next summer will be “English-led” and English managed, the talent pool has opened up for Phil Neville and with any hope, the squad he puts together will be the best at his disposal. Whether that means he takes 1 or 18 players from England remains to be seen, but there is no call for him to take anyone out of tokenism.