The sight of Great Britain fielding a team in the women’s football tournament at the Tokyo Olympics would have raised a few eyebrows among football fans around the world, so this week we look back at the participation of the United Kingdom in Olympic football and ask - what’s in a name?
To football fans across the world, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are the familiar reference points and have been since the birth of the international game in the early 1870s. But those are not names you will see at the Olympics where athletes from the United Kingdom compete under the banner of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – or Team GB for short. So, what’s the history behind the different representation of the United Kingdom in FIFA and at the Olympics, and just how many different names can one country have!
A couple of geographical definitions may help. The official name of the country, the one used at the United Nations, is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the UK for short. England, Scotland and Wales are part of an island called Great Britain, the largest of the 67 islands that make up the British Isles. The second biggest island in the British Isles is Ireland, which today is divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland but which until 100 years ago was all one country known simply as Ireland.
All of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (listed in alphabetical order to avoid claims of bias!) were historically separate nations. All four have their own unique culture, heritage, and political institutions as well as distinct languages, all of which are still spoken today. Through centuries of war and treaties, a number of alliances and unions have arisen. England and Scotland came under one king in 1603 (Wales had been annexed to the English crown in 1284) but both they and Wales remained politically independent until the Acts of Union in 1707. That was when the term Great Britain was first used in a political as opposed to a geographical sense. In 1801 Ireland joined this Union at which point the term United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland first came into being.
The UK is in relation to football vis-a-vis the Olympics
The relationship between all four within the union has never been an easy one and it was against a background of febrile nationalist politics, especially in Ireland, that association football came into the world in 1863. The new London-based Football Association struggled to assert its authority in England, let alone in Ireland, Scotland or Wales, and each of the four nations created their own ‘national’ football associations – Scotland in 1873, Wales in 1876 and Ireland in 1880. Each ran its own League and Cup competitions and there was never any notion that there should be a British League or Cup. Indeed, by 1904 when FIFA was founded, an international tournament between the national teams of the four British nations had been going strong for 20 years, witnessed by huge crowds especially at Hampden Park in Glasgow and at the Crystal Palace in London.
At the time of FIFA’s foundation, association football was still very much a ‘British’ game. It would be many years before the crowd of 110,820 which packed into the Crystal Palace for the 1901 FA Cup Final would be matched anywhere else in the world, but with the FIFA Statutes (written by the English) enshrining the principle of one affiliated association per country, what should be done about the four ‘British’ associations? The solution was to make an exception, an exception that has been maintained by FIFA ever since. At the 1908 FIFA Congress the application of Ireland and Scotland to join had been questioned on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent, but by the 1910 Congress in Milan, attitudes had changed with the Congress inviting the Irish, Scottish and Welsh football associations to join.