Time to put politics aside and unite for Olympics

“THAT was in Budapest,” said athlete Iwan Thomas earlier this week when talking about winning gold in the 1998 European Championships. “But imagine it was London, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything. The noise would be crazy.”

The Welsh sprinter was speaking at a debate about next year’s Olympics and, more specifically, the on-going controversy over the make-up of Great Britain’s football team.

As has been the case in previous Olympics, the sticking point is concerns held, in particular, by the Scottish and Welsh Football Associations that unifying all countries under the banner of ‘Team GB’ could be the thin end of the wedge in terms of the future.

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It has, of course, been a long-standing fear among the Home Nations that powerful voices from within FIFA and UEFA view separate England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland teams as an out and out anachronism.

Thomas, as proud a Welshman as you could imagine, was attempting to underline to delegates at Soccerex’s European Forum just why such concerns should be swept aside to offer the Home Nations’ footballers an opportunity to experience something unforgettable.

He was joined on the panel at this week’s session by Alan Curbishley, the former Charlton and West Ham manager who must have a chance of managing Team GB, and Brad Friedel.

The thoughts of Aston Villa’s American goalkeeper were just as pertinent as those of Thomas, who after his European Championships 400m triumph in Hungary famously wept tears of joy when embracing his coach, Mike Smith, trackside.

Friedel knows, first-hand, what appearing for his country in an Olympics really means, having been part of the US side that competed in the 1992 Games and then the one pipped to the bronze medal by Chile eight years later.

As a result of relishing both experiences, he is a big advocate of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales joining forces with the English to create a united team to represent all four corners of Britain.

The 39-year-old, who has also played in three World Cups for the United States, told the Soccerex conference in Manchester: “As an American growing up, the Olympics were the pinnacle. For me, an Olympic gold medal is right up there with a World Cup winner’s medal.

“It isn’t just the Games you are playing in but the entire experience. I was 19 years old and coming down to breakfast and sitting next to Boris Becker. It was an amazing experience and for any British players to miss out on that would be a travesty.”

Asked specifically about the concerns held by the Scottish and Welsh FAs, Friedel added: “I can understand a little bit but I would like to think sport would prevail instead of politics.”

Friedel’s passion was evident as he made a compelling argument for a true Team GB and I wish it was one that the Associations who are prevaricating over the issue could have been present at the G-Mex to hear.

Next year will see London, and by definition the rest of Britain, enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience when the Olympics come to town.

The cream of the world’s sportsmen and women will descend on the English capital for the first time since 1948 and it is clear, even to someone such as this correspondent who last took a genuine interest in an Olympic Games when Daley Thompson ruled the roost, the Olympics are going to be an occasion to savour.

Whatever takes your fancy, be it the 100 metres final or BMX bike-riding, London is going to be the place to be come late summer, 2012.

For football fans, the scenario is slightly different with games not being restricted to just the capital. In fact, only Wembley in London will host fixtures with the rest being spread across Hampden Park, Old Trafford, St James’ Park, the Ricoh Arena – though due to sponsorship issues it will be known, imaginatively, as the City of Coventry Stadium – and the Millennium Stadium.

The tournament will see 16 teams, largely comprising Under-23 players, compete in 32 matches across just 18 days.

The fun kicks-off on July 25, two days before the Games’ opening ceremony, and there promises to be plenty for supporters to enjoy.

Four groups of four will comprise the opening stage, while, in a first for a competitive tournament played within these shores, there will be several double-header contests where fans can enjoy back-to-back games.

The spread of games across the country opens up the Olympics to those of us fortunate enough to live outside the M25 and, sitting in the Soccerex audience on Wednesday afternoon, I could not help but start to look forward to what promises to be an enjoyable two-and-a-half weeks before the slightly delayed domestic season gets underway on August 18.

With that in mind, I spent the journey home from Manchester picking a possible XI to take on the rest of the world under the GB banner.

Due to the caveat that no player can appear in both Euro 2012 and the Olympics – meaning that (hopefully) the likes of Jack Wilshere and Gary Cahill will be ineligible – I plumped for the experience of Alan McGregor in goal behind a back-four containing two of this year’s most impressive Premier League performers, Chris Smalling and Gareth Bale, along with former Sheffield United full-back Kyle Walker and Jonny Evans.

Likewise, in midfield one of the three permitted over-age slots goes to Scotland’s Charlie Adam alongside the hugely promising trio of Tom Cleverley, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Cork.

Up front, Connor Wickham and Daniel Sturridge offer the mix of pace, skill and power that could give Team GB a great chance of makings its mark in London 2012.

That is, of course, if the sensible suggestion made by Curbishley at the Soccerex conference is acted upon this month when FIFA president Sepp Blatter is due in London to meet officials of the English FA as part of his campaign to secure a fourth term in office.

“Blatter has said verbally that it (merging the four Home Nations) won’t happen,” said the former Charlton manager. “So one way round this is that he puts that in writing.”

Over to the FA.