GB’s identity crisis: why there was no men’s Olympic football team

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Were you left wondering why there was a women’s but not a Great British men’s football team at the Olympic Games? If so, you were not alone. After England’s brilliant performance at Euro 2020 with a team of young and talented players, it seemed strange that none of the team would be competing for GB in Tokyo. Not only is it the case that these players were not given a chance to play, but no men at all would be given the chance since Great Britain didn’t put a male football team forward. The reason for this has various implications for both national identity and gender in sport.  

Although there was both a GB women’s and men’s football team at the 2012 London Olympics, in Rio, 2016, it was decided by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that assembling a British football team would threaten their status as independent nations within FIFA. This remained a concern at the Tokyo 2020 Games, meaning that only a women’s football team was assembled. Although this decision, at face value, appears trivial, it says something much deeper about not only national identity, but the differences in treatment of men’s and women’s football. First, let’s look at what it means for Great Britain’s national identity. 

It can be argued that England doesn’t have to worry about their independence in the same way the three other Home Nations do

It may seem challenging to understand why Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would not put their anxieties about independence to one side in favour of such an adored national sport. Yet it can be argued that England doesn’t have to worry about its independence in the same way the three other Home Nations do.

It could be said that the other nations have had to work to create a sporting legacy separate from the influence of England. As Trevor Lloyd Hughes, the then-president of the FAW, stated in 2015, “England seem to want to run everything… But we will not let that happen – the dragon on Wales has still got flame coming out of his mouth.” At first glance, it is difficult to understand the three Home Nations’ decision to oppose the assemblage of a male football team, yet it is reasonable to see why they feel that the protection of their independence takes priority. 

The outcome has greatly benefitted the coverage of women’s football

However, it appears national unity was possible when selecting a women’s team, and although this at first seems positive, it also suggests that worries over independence are less threatening when it comes to female sport. The choice appears to suggest that losing independent status is more dangerous when it comes to men’s football than women’s. 

Arguably, it can also be said that sending a men’s team would convey a more impactful message to the world than a women’s team. However, the decision to send a women’s team has meant that instead of the conversation being dominated about the performance of players like Kane and Maguire, it was filled with conversation about the accomplishments of Lucy Bronze and Ellen White. Therefore, although the disagreement may say something deeper about gender in sport, the outcome has greatly benefitted the coverage of women’s football. 

All in all, it is hopeful that, because of the marvellous performance of the women in GB football, a male team will be put forward in the 2024 Paris Games. Yet, this may only be possible if the three Home Nations’ concerns about independence are respected and if they are allowed more influence over the game. 

Image: Gary Howden via Wikimedia Commons

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