Why Great Britain could be back playing football at the Olympic Games
Representatives of the four home nations held discussions on the sidelines of the UEFA Congress in Athens, which saw the election of a new president, over the possibility of Team GB participating in future Olympic football tournaments.
Historically, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been reluctant to take part in the event. Here we look at why, and what impact it could have on the British game if they were to change their minds and become part of the Olympic football family as they did in 2012.
Q. Why has Great Britain been reluctant to participate in the Olympic Games football tournament?
A. The home nations have always feared that a Great Britain football side in the Olympics could eventually have an impact on their standing as independent members of FIFA.
Each of them has a vote within world football's governing body on key decisions, are able to put up candidates for posts and also have access to much needed development funds. This is particularly important for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland who are concerned that they could be pushed out by England, which is financially stronger and better connected within the world of international football politics if they are all considered as a single entity.
Q. But didn't GB participate in the London 2012 Olympic tournament?
A. Yes, but that was a one off because it was a Games held on home soil and all the four Football Associations of the home nations decided to temporarily put their differences to one side.
It was the first time in 52 years that GB had entered a men's team*, while the women's side was making its debut in the Olympic competition. Both were eliminated in the quarterfinals and neither participated in the recently held Rio Olympics.
Team GB's matches attracted good attendances at the London 2012 tournament and the men's side was captained by Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs. Despite this, once the tournament was over there was little enthusiasm for the home nations to come together and make Olympic football part of their international calender.
"I don't think it will happen again," said Stuart Pearce, who managed the men's team. "Home advantage has allowed us to have this opportunity but when you look at international programmes and bringing nationalities together, where are we going to find the time to enter a qualification period."
Q. So why the change of mind over a GB Olympic football team?
A. Much of it is down to new England manager Sam Allardyce, who raised the issue last month following Team GB's huge success at the Rio Games.
"It's something we may look at in the future and try to compete in," he said. His Wales counterpart Chris Coleman however, was less than impressed and protested that any GB football side would be dominated by England and that it could put at risk all his hard work in building a strong Welsh team, saying: "Anything that could put what we've got here, what we've built here, in jeopardy, we would not be for that."
Despite the spat between the two, however, discussions have continued between officials from the home nations over entering a team for Tokyo 2020. They met on the sidelines of the recently held UEFA Congress in Athens, while the English FA's chief executive Martin Glenn also revealed that FIFA president Gianni Infantino had indicated that a GB Olympic team would not endanger the independence of the four home nations as had his predecessor Sepp Blatter.
Q. Is there a valid football reason for GB Olympic team?
A. Allardyce may believe that it would be good for the development of young players, giving them competitive experience in high profile games. While the four home nations ignore the Olympic football tournament, the rest of the world does not, seeing it as a valuable way to develop talent while giving youngsters a chance to play alongside established stars.
The men's Olympic competition is effectively used as an under-23 competition, with three overage players allowed in each squad. Some of the biggest names in the game have represented their nations at the Olympics. In 2008 at the Beijing Games, a young Lionel Messi helped Argentina win gold. In the recently concluded Rio final, Neymar hit home the winning penalty against Germany.
Women's football would also receive a considerable boost. During London 2012, the GB women's side attracted a combined attendance of more than 154,000. The match in which they defeated Brazil was watched by more than 70,000 at Wembley. There are no age limits in the women's Olympic football tournament and it could give the women's game the kind of high profile exposure that it currently lacks while improving players by allowing them to play in more challenging fixtures.
Q. So where do we go from here?
A. More formal discussions will now take place. The talks in Athens were designed to get the ball rolling and to demonstrate to the representatives of the four home nations that the idea of a GB Olympic team is not opposed by FIFA or UEFA and does not threaten their independence.
All the sides will now go away and consult the managers of their teams and other football officials of their countries to see whether the idea can work and how much support there is for it. Convincing the likes of Coleman for example, may prove to be difficult.
While some progress has been made, the big concern for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland will be that any GB side could be dominated by England. Getting the balance right between all four home nations, not just in terms of players but also officials and coaching staff, will be crucial to ensuring the participation of a Great Britain United football team at Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
* Team GB men's squad list in 2012: Jack Butland (Birmingham), Jason Steele (Middlesbrough); Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea), Steven Caulker (Tottenham), Craig Dawson (West Brom), Micah Richards (Manchester City), Neil Taylor (Swansea), James Tomkins (West Ham); Joe Allen (Swansea), Tom Cleverley (Manchester United), Jack Cork (Southampton), Ryan Giggs (Manchester United), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Scott Sinclair (Swansea); Craig Bellamy (Liverpool), Marvin Sordell (Bolton), Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea).
Vivek Chaudhary covers FIFA and the financial side of the game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @viveksport