THE OLYMPICS are in full swing now and there’s a notable absence from the football competition in Brazil – a Great Britain team. We should not be too surprised, for with the exception of 2012 when the nation hosted the games, we haven’t really taken part, for various reasons, for some years.
The golden age of Great British Olympic football was in the early 20th century when most of Europe, indeed the world, was still playing catch-up. In 1908, England beat Denmark in the final at White City to win gold. The Danes had the great Nils Middelboe in their line-up, a player still remembered as a hero in Denmark. I actually stumbled across his grave in Copenhagen earlier this summer and Nils is still revered in the home of my ancestors. The Great Britain side in 1908 was managed by one Alfred Davis, the man who has a football ground – Marlow – named after him.
Four years later, Great Britain won the gold medal again, and once more, they defeated the Danes, this time in Stockholm by 4-2. Britain’s squad included players from Bromley, Nunhead, Stockton, London Caledonians and Ilford, but also amateurs from major clubs like Derby County, Chelsea, Everton and Birmingham.
In 1948, with London hosting once more, you might have expected Great Britain to win the top prize, but they finished third. The squad made interesting reading and included Ronnie Simpson, who would go on to play for Newcastle United and Celtic, becoming one of the Lisbon Lions in 1967. There was also Bob Hardisty, who would feature in the famous Bishop Auckland FA Amateur Cup winning side in the 1950s.
Great Britain would never again shine so brightly in Olympic football and other nations were more adept at bringing major talent through the amateur ranks. For example, in 1960, the Brazil squad included Gerson, who would become a key member of the 1970 World Cup winning team. Italy had Gianni Rivera in their line-up, the “golden boy” of Italian football in the 1960s. Argentina fielded future manager Carlos Bilardo in their defence and Hungary fielded future European Footballer of the Year, Florian Albert and four years later, the prolific Ferenc Bene. Great Britain included players, however accomplished they were, who were used to lining up in leagues like the Isthmian. It is fair to say that the modern game’s development also brought an end the era of the gifted amateur – in the 1950s, for example, some outstanding individuals turned out at the very highest level, people like Seamus O’Connell, Jim Lewis and Derek Saunders to name but three.
Since 1960, Great Britain have not featured in the games, apart from 2012 when we were hosts. Between 1952 and 1988 – 10 Olympic Games – the football gold was dominated by the old eastern bloc, largely due to the structure of the game in pre-glasnost Europe. Basically, most athletes and footballers representing Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslavakia and the Soviet Union, purporting to be “amateur” were effectively professional sportsman in military uniforms!
Today, of course, the logistics and politics of forming a Great Britain side are just too painful. Even in 2012, the fact we ended up with an England line-up with a couple of Welshmen, creating a somewhat diluted attempt at a GB XI, meant that it was unlikely to be repeated in a hurry.
But should Olympic football merely be yet another competition that looks and, to some extent, feels, like yet another FIFA bun-fight? I saw some games at London 2012 and was not over impressed. Do we really need it when we have World Cups, Euros and Copas running in sequence, not to mention the plethora of youth and under-21 tournaments?
We have moved away from the Olympics being full of Corinthian ideals and “after you, Claude” sentimentality, and the latest fiasco over doping just serves to further erode any concept of sporting fair play. I am not sure that bringing full-blown professional football into the Olympics is either needed or totally recognised as being worthwhile. In some ways, it might be better to have the equivalent of non-league representing their nations once more. The crème de la crème of non-league running out in Rio – that might be interesting.
This article originally appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday August 14, 2016.