The gilded men in blazers at the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales football associations have once again insisted that none of their players can play for Team Great Britain at next year's London Olympics. What a joke.
I thought the job of these pompous buffoons was to promote the game at every level, not to choke off an opportunity for talented young players. I've never bought a ticket to watch the blazers eat their lobster salad in the first-class section of whatever plane is taking them to their latest soccer boondoggle, but I have watched plenty of Olympic soccer.
Due to the 2012 Olympics being hosted by London, Great Britain gets to field teams in every sport as the host nation. FIFA's Sepp Blatter has stated on more than one occasion that under the unique hosting circumstances, it's OK for a British soccer team to compete in the men's and women's tournaments. So Great Britain will take to the Olympic field next summer -- the men coached by Stuart Pearce, the women by Hope Powell -- and it would be a disservice to everyone if only English players were on the squad.
I've been fortunate enough to attend each Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games. I watched Cameroon beat Spain in the gold-medal game on penalty kicks at a surf shop on Bondi Beach. To say the least, it was a memorable experience. As it was for Spain's Xavi, Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, Geremi and Patrick Mboma, who all played in that game. In Athens and Beijing, I watched the final from the media observer seats. Carlos Tevez scored the gold medal-winning goal in 2004 (vs. Paraguay), and Angel Di Maria netted that honor in 2008 (vs. Nigeria.) Those back-to-back Olympic champion Argentina teams featured the likes of Fabricio Coloccini, Javier Mascherano, Javier Saviola, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
In other words, the Olympics are a place to watch future soccer stars. It's an environment where potential gets a chance to be tested. The more-or-less U-23 men's soccer tournament is rightly overshadowed at the Games by the traditional Olympic sports such as track and field, gymnastics, swimming and so on, but that doesn't mean a soccer gold medal isn't important. Brazil badly wants to win the only men's soccer title it hasn't captured in London next year. They came up short in Beijing, and the passion on the field at the Argentina-Brazil semifinal was as palpable as any game I've ever watched in person.
Argentina will not be in London next year, as they didn't make it through Olympic qualification, but Uruguay will look to shoot down Brazilian ambition again. As will Spain, Belarus, Switzerland and any African, Asian or CONCACAF nation that qualifies as well.
But the "We're not British Blazers" from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales don't want any part of it. The notion of Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale or Joe Allen gaining valuable tournament experience next summer apparently couldn't benefit them in helping Wales qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The same could be said for Scotland's Barry Bannan, Kyle Hutton and Gregg Wylde or Northern Ireland's Oliver Norwood, Ryan McGivern and Andrew Little. Clearly, playing in the 2008 Olympics held back Messi's career development.
I know all about the conspiracy theories concerning FIFA merging the four votes of the British nations into one if Team GB plays at the Games, and I accept that soccer's world governing body is not an organization to be trusted. But seriously, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales think they have anything less to lose at Zurich House than England. There is no blazer like an English blazer, and even allowing for the terrible state of relations between the FA and FIFA at the moment, there is no chance Blatter could push through a change in status of the four associations even if he wanted to. FIFA has way too many problems on its plate at the moment to even try, and the FA still has too much clout in the world game for that to happen.
The fact is many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish athletes will represent Great Britain at the Olympics next year, and everyone in Britain will cheer for them. Some will win medals, others will suffer heartbreak, and most will just enjoy the incredible experience of being an Olympian, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. None of those emotions should be denied to any eligible Team GB soccer player.
This issue has come back to the fore because Welsh stars Ramsey and Bale donned the Team GB jersey for the Olympic promotional campaign. The Games would benefit from them wearing it in competition next summer. Down the road, I think there is every chance Wales would as well. The Welsh FA is not about to tell Swansea City it must play in the Welsh Premier League instead of the EPL. It should take the same attitude with its rising stars' participation at the 2012 London Games. Let them play.