Understandably, European nations often decline to participate in Olympic football competition. The alignment of their respective four year rotations means that UEFA’s European Championships coincide with the Olympic Games.
In an already crowded summer of football, many Football Associations deem a further tournament undesirable and those who do enter inevitably send weakened teams.
Football being the national sport, however, it seemed necessary for Britain to field a team of some description at London 2012. And so, after much haranguing, England’s FA have been granted permission to select a team of Englishmen to compete under the banner of Team GB.
The one-off team, whilst born out of a need to keep up appearances, might just have an opportunity to achieve something meaningful. The tournament itself is an under-23 competition, with a maximum of three players in each squad exempt from age restrictions. In all likelihood, anyone included in England’s Euro 2012 squad will be precluded from selection for the Olympics.
Subsequently, the players assembled to compete at the London Olympics under the GB banner are likely to represent a youthful side with plenty to prove.
It’s probable they will confront some challenging opposition. Free from the aforementioned schedule conflicts which afflict European nations, South American, Asian and African teams typically field strong squads. Beijing’s 2008 Olympics featured the likes of Lionel Messi, Ramires, Alexandre Pato, Peter Odemwingie and Sergio Ageuro.
The tournament should thus be treated as a potential learning experience for a generation of young English footballers. A commendable recent record at Under 21 level ought to equip the squad with confidence that they might succeed at the tournament. England’s U-21’s reached the semi-final of the European Championships in 2007. Then in 2009 they went a step better by reaching the final. En-route, England even registered a 2-0 win over Spain, upon whose youth set-up onlookers frequently fawn.
What’s more, at London 2012, the squad might even be fortunate enough to evade the kind of media scrutiny which so frequently blights England teams. Football will be demoted to the recesses of the public consciousness, albeit temporarily, during the course of the Olympics, as rowers, cyclists, sprinters and alike adorn the spotlight.
The plan afoot to award David Beckam the captaincy next summer, however, threatens to be disruptive. English football’s much beloved darling is expected to return to these shores when his contract at LA Galaxy expires this winter. Common consensus suggests that, provided his fitness can be vindicated, the captain’s armband awaits him.
To include Beckam in the squad seems tempting. He is, after all, heralded from the very territory in which the Olympic stadium now stands. We could happily indulge a fond farewell to the golden boy, a fitting tear-jerker to pay homage to an ambassador who brought the Games to London. The resulting back-page jingoism would certainly make for a fine Olympic souvenir.
The glorified encore, though, an exercise in sycophancy and a concession to sentimentality, would be of little benefit.
The shadow of Beckam would surely loom large over the squad. His aura of celebrity and the accompanying paparazzi would reintroduce the aforementioned press attention. An unwelcome distraction, the inevitable media carnival would only hinder the squad’s capacity to focus on the task at hand.
Needless to say, of course, that the weight of Brand Beckam will also be a valuable marketing asset to the Games of the XXX Olmpiad. Naïve are those who believe that Beckam’s likely inclusion will be decided by the manager alone. What kind of lesson does this send to Britain’s young footballers?
More important than any of this, though, is the fact that there are plenty of eligible players who would offer more in a competitive sense. Of the over-23 brigade likely to be excluded from the Euro’s, Jonathan Woodgate, Phil Neville, Paul Robinson, Joe Cole and Danny Murphy, to name but a handful, all represent better choices. England ought to be teaching young players that merit alone is the sole arbiter of selection for the national team.