Home nations’ identities will not be compromised

No one is going to pretend the Olympic football tournament carries the same prestige as the World Cup, the European Championship, nor even the Copa Am�rica.

But given that Argentina’s gold medal-winning teams from the 2008 and 2004 Games included players such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Ag�ero, Carlos T�vez, Gabriel Heinze and Javier Mascherano, it is clearly more than just a Mickey Mouse competition.

Great Britain has not competed in the Olympic football tournament since Rome in 1960, when the team – which included a future Norwich City centre-half in Laurie Brown – was eliminated at the group stage and Yugoslavia won the gold.

Britain has not even attempted to qualify since 1972, since when the rules have been relaxed to allow professional players to take part.

But next year’s Games in London offer a rare opportunity for the home nations to unite and compete under one banner.

The prospect, however, seems to have sent the governing bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into something akin to apoplexy because they fear that their players representing Team GB will endanger their independent status with Fifa.

Is this a realistic threat? It seems to me to be an absurd notion to suggest that the three countries will lose their national identity on the strength of joining forces for one tournament, lasting a fortnight.

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Worse still, there seems to be an insidious attempt on the part of opponents of the joint Olympic team to portray any non-Englishman expressing an interest in playing for Team GB almost as some kind of traitor.

Wales internationals Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have both been pictured modelling Team GB supporters’ shirts and caused something of a stir in the process, with national team boss Gary Speed claiming they had been used for publicity purposes.

But both players have said they would like to be considered for the British side – Ramsey has said he will not play if it threatens Wales’ independence – and they are perfectly entitled to do so.

Without wishing to write off Wales in any future qualification campaign, it may be that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the two players to appear in a top international tournament, and they should not be denied it by small-minded parochialism.

The last time I looked at the map, Wales was still part of Great Britain, and having separate rugby union teams in the Six Nations Championship, where they are fierce rivals, has not stopped them pooling their resources successfully for the British Lions.

I would far rather see Bale, Ramsey and the best young Scottish and Irish prospects included in the Team GB squad than indulge David Beckham’s wish to appear in the Olympics at the age of 37 in what could only be a sentimental selection.

A more plausible concern for the home nations, it would appear, is the fact that the World Cup qualifying campaign starts in early September 2012, and the Olympic football tournament does not finish until August 11.

Wales are planning a friendly against top opposition just four days after the Olympic final.

Yet ex-Canary striker Craig Bellamy insists the Olympic experience can only benefit the Welsh youngsters.

In a BBC interview this week, he argued: “Do I believe one or two players deserve the chance to represent Great Britain in the Olympics? Of course they do. For me it’s a great honour for them.

“The Argentinians and the Brazilians have all taken it seriously. They’ve all played their top young players. If we could have one or two involved in it, what experience that brings our national team.

“If we’re trying to qualify off the back of one or two players who have had that experience it will only benefit Welsh football. When they come back to Wales the highlights and experience of going through that and what they then have to give to the Welsh national team, it will only benefit.

“How can we lose our identity? I don’t understand it, I don’t get it one bit.”

Neither do I, frankly. Neither do I.