Monday, September 19, 2011

Soccernomics: To Be or not To Be

Jere Longman and Sarah Lyall have a very nice piece in the New York Times today about one of the more curious quirks of international sport.  The International Olympic Committee, along with the United Nations, recognizes the United Kingdom as a country for their participation in the Olympics. Thus, athletes complete for Great Britain under the Union Jack for the purposes of the Olympics.  The United Kingdom, however, is an entity for external purposes only, inside the UK are four fiercely independent counties.  And in soccer, the four countries that make up the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play independently under FIFA rules.  As soccer is a major sport of all four countries, the national teams are closely related to each country's national identity and pride.

Those familiar with the UK will know that there is a very strong sense of parochialism in Great Britain, where virtually no one considers themselves British in the larger sense, but English, Irish, Scots and Welsh.  The separate identity of their soccer teams is thus vitally important to all the four nations and most fans of Scotland, for example, will actively root against England and vice-versa.  There is also the considerable concern that if Great Britain fields a team at the Olympics, FIFA (despite assurances to the contrary) will stop recognizing the independent national teams of the four UK countries and force them to merge.  So, for the last half decade there has been no Great Britain soccer team at the Olympics.

Which has been pretty much fine and well with all parties involved.  The Olympics is not a major event in the soccer world which has its own international championship: the World Cup.  In fact, to make the Olympics relevant, it has become an under 23 tournament in which professionals are allowed to participate.  But now the Olympics are coming to Great Britain and the prospect of hosting a soccer tournament on British soil without the participation of the British themselves - the inventors of the game - is causing some consternation.  There is a movement afoot to field a Great British team for this Olympics and FIFA have assured the national authorities that their independence as separate footballing nations would not be put in jeopardy if it came to pass.  But few believe it - and anyone who follows FIFA in the slightest will know how corrupt, arbitrary and unpredictable is the governance of the body.

And then comes the players for whom their national identity is sacrosanct, but for whom the Olympics may be their only chance to compete in a meaningful national tournament. This is a tension not easily resolved. Here is a nice excerpt from the NYT piece:

It has also divided players. Some, like Julie Fleeting, Scotland’s career-leading female scorer, have said they will not risk their futures by competing on Team GB. “I am Scottish through and through,” she told reporters in June.

But other high-profile players — including Aaron Ramsey, the captain of Wales’s national team, who plays for Arsenal in England’s Premier League, and his Welsh teammate Gareth Bale, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur — have said they would like to play. (David Beckham, the onetime England star, has also expressed interest.)

“I don’t see why anyone would want to stop a player from playing in a massive tournament like the Olympics,” Kim Little, a top Scottish women’s midfielder, told The Guardian.

One incentive to play for Britain, noted by Bale, could be that the non-English national teams have such woeful international records. Wales, for instance, has only ever qualified for one major international competition: the 1958 World Cup.

But the federations resist and many worry that this will lead to the erosion of relevance for the smaller nations.

Scotland, for instance, already worries that its soccer federation is “by and large forgotten” and that “for many people abroad, England is Britain,” said Raymond Boyle, a professor at the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow. Many Scots, it seems, sympathize with Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager who now coaches Aberdeen. “I would rather lose as Scotland than win as Great Britain,” he told The Guardian.

And in Wales, Neville Southall, the national team’s former goalkeeper, told reporters recently that he could not conceive of supporting a non-Welsh team. “The whole point of going to the Olympics is that special moment when your flag goes up,” he said.

“What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well, it’s not my flag; my flag’s a Dragon.”
As a personal note, my grandfather's family emigrated from Scotland to England (and even then the ancestors were probably part of the great Irish migration to Scotland) and then to the US.  My grandfather used to fly the Royal Standard of Scotland, the Union Jack and the US flag at his house in California which made him unusual in his embrace of the Union flag (though perhaps less unusual in the expat community).  I would imagine that WWII had a lot to do with his perspective.  As a veteran of the war, having served in the RAF, I think the experience of fighting off foreign would-be invaders under the Union flag must have an impact.  But perhaps the youngsters have lost this memory and are back to the tribalism of old.  I, for one, think it would be cool for all the young stars of the four countries to play together, but then my family spans Scotland, England and Wales so I don't put much emphasis on national identity.

Okay, so there is not a lot of 'nomics to this soccer post...

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