x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Team GB on the podium? A football fan's worst nightmare

Football may be Great Britain's national sport, but you wouldn't know it by looking at ticket sales for London 2012. While nearly every other event on the Olympic schedule is selling out, soccer isn't. How could this be?

What constitutes an Olympic sport? It's a question that has much occupied the minds of Londoners in recent days, as we've waited to hear whether our ticket applications for next year's London games have been successful.

During the movement's distinguished history there have been many weird and wonderful sports that have made fleeting appearances at the world's biggest sporting showcase. The list has included Tug-of-war, rope climbing, Indian club swinging, long jump for horses, pistol duelling (presumably the silver and bronze medalists received their awards at their hospital bedsides), and perhaps the most piquant of all, live pigeon shooting, an event that thankfully featured only once, in 1900.

The list nowadays may be less eclectic, but debate still rages as to which sports should be allowed. What of ladies beach volleyball for instance? Is synchronised swimming really a suitable candidate? And what about table-tennis (or ping-pong, as its detractors prefer to call it)? Yet ironically, it's not these marginal attractions but the most popular game of all that is generating the most controversy in the run up to London 2012.

Football may be Great Britain's national sport, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the ticket sales. Despite overwhelming demand for nearly every other event on the Olympic schedule, nobody, it seems, wants to watch soccer. Of the 2.3 million seats still available last week, an overwhelming proportion - 1.7 million - was for football.

How could this be?

The answer, of course, is simple. Football has no place at the Olympic table. One sporting journalist summarised its innate unsuitability when he observed on Twitter: "Any sport for which the Olympics is not the biggest stage should not be in the Olympics." Quite so.

But as if that weren't bad enough, it's now been announced that the four home nations in Great Britain - England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - may be asked to amalgamate in next years tournament into a single unit: "Team GB".

The idea would be laughable if it weren't so ludicrous. Anyone who's ever witnessed the intense tribal rivalry between our various national sides whenever they or their supporters get within a pitch-length of each other will need no reminding of how Great Britain is one nation united by mutual mistrust.

Indeed, the annual England-Scotland match, the oldest international sporting fixture in the world, was scrapped in 1989 after a string of encounters were marred by hooliganism and violence - and that was merely on the field of play.

Inevitably the genius behind this proposed sporting merger, British Olympic Association chief executive Andy Hunt, has instantly become the biggest sporting hate figure since Belgian sharpshooter Leon de Lunden murdered 21 pigeons back in 1900.

Yet despite the furore, Mr Hunt remains unabashed. Even though pundits have described his scheme as "a farce", with the Scottish Football Association claiming there was "no appetite" either among their players or fans to chum up with their deadliest rivals in pursuit of the Olympic ideal, he described himself "incredibly positive" that there will be both men's and women's GB sides at next year's games.

Maybe. But whether there will be anyone on the terraces to watch them is another matter. Passion and loyalty are commodities that take time to nurture, and cannot readily be replicated by creating a new team.

More worryingly, opponents of the Team GB hybrid on all sides suspect that Mr Hunt's initiative may be the thin end of a wedge that will ultimately lead one day to enforced amalgamation in the proper football World Cup as well - a much more frightening scenario for true fans.

And if he still underestimates the deep tribal forces with which he is trifling, one tale may suffice. The story goes of an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman about to be put in front of a firing squad. Each supplicant is offered one last wish. The Welshman chooses a male voice choir singing Cwm Rhondda. The Scotsman plumps for a skirl of pipes playing Scotland The Brave, while the Irishman requests a traditional Celtic fiddle band playing Danny Boy.

The executioner finally turns to the Englishman. "And what's your request?" he asks. "Shoot me first" comes the reply.


Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London