The curious story of the Brits and Olympic football

Young supporters of Team GB at the 2012 Olympics in London.
© Imago

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.

A letter from the Swedish FA, who were responsible for organising the 1912 Olympic football tournament, confirming that the regulations from 1908 allowing each of the four British associations to enter a team would still be the case for 1912.
A letter from the Swedish football association, who were responsible for organising the 1912 Olympic football tournament, confirming that the regulations from 1908 allowing each of the four British associations to enter a team would still be the case for 1912. | From the FIFA Museum Archive (click to enlarge)

The 1908 and 1912 Olympics
British representation at the Olympics followed a very different path. Team sports hadn’t featured at the first three Olympic Games, in 1896, 1900, and 1904, but when the British Olympic Association was tasked with organising the London Games of 1908 after Rome had pulled out, it asked The Football Association in London to organise an Association Football Tournament, the first time it would be included as an official sport. The FA, however, were faced with an immediate problem. As there was no organisation in Britain with the authority to choose a British team, the regulations made the provision that for football and hockey four teams from each country could enter, a solution that would enable the United Kingdom to field a team from each of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And that is indeed what happened in hockey where England beat Ireland 8-1 in the Final.

There was, however, a problem in football. Unlike hockey, which was a strictly amateur sport in line with the Olympic ethos, in football all four British nations had adopted professionalism. England was well positioned as it had created an amateur team in 1906 to play matches against the newly formed national teams of Europe. Scotland, however, had no such amateur team and its ruling council was not of a mind to create one just for the Olympics and so turned down the invitation to take part, as did Ireland and Wales. In the event the England amateur team stitched a Union Jack on their white shirts in place of the traditional three lions badge, but this drew a stinging response from Scotland who stated that The FA had no authority to call the team anything other than ‘England’, something that the regulations had made provision for. The Swedish Football Association committee charged with organising the football tournament of the 1912 Stockholm Games tried to get all four British nations to enter by once again by permitting four teams per nation, but it soon became apparent that once again only the English amateur team would be present.

Telegram sent by CAW Hirschman to the Swedish organisers of the 1912 Olympic Football Tournament detailing the entries. | From the FIFA Museum Archive
Telegram sent by CAW Hirschman to the Swedish organisers of the 1912 Olympic Football Tournament detailing the entries. | From the FIFA Museum Archive (click to enlarge)

The 1908 and 1912 Olympics have provided historians with a bit of a headache when it comes to identifying who won. Given the strength of English football at the time, it was no surprise that the England amateur team won both tournaments, beating Denmark in the Final of both. But the IOC reports of the two Games list the team in 1908 as the United Kingdom and in 1912 as Great Britain. FIFA on the other hand took a different view that was in line with the regulations of both tournaments, listing the winners of both as England. The telegram of entries sent by Hirschman to the organisers clearly states that it was England taking part, and at no point does any FIFA publication of the time use the term Great Britain or United Kingdom. It’s a question that rumbles on today.

During the inter-war period the Olympic football tournament was the cause of a major split between Britain and FIFA which led to the withdrawal of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1928 until after the second World War. At issue was the definition of the word amateur, which the IOC framed in the purest form, but which FIFA wanted diluted so that as few teams as possible were disbarred from taking part. The four British national associations were not against professionalism per se, which had been accepted in England since 1885, but it was thought unfair to pit amateurs against professionals.

A notification in The Times newspaper of London on 6 July 1936 announcing the creation of the first ever Great Britain team.
A notification in The Times newspaper of London on 6 July 1936 announcing the creation of the first ever Great Britain team. (click to enlarge)

1936 and the creation of the first Great Britain team
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin ushered in a new era for British participation at the football tournament of the Olympics, an era which lasted until 1972. It stemmed from a meeting of the four British associations that took place in London on 4 July 1936 where it was agreed that a team should be selected for the Berlin Olympics and that that team should be called Great Britain. It was of course a purely amateur team so Queen’s Park, a bastion of the amateur game in Scotland, provided four of the squad with Northern Ireland providing two. Wales failed to enter any while England provided the rest. There were only a handful of amateurs left playing at the highest level in the UK and Arsenal centre-half Bernard Joy was made captain. Earlier in the year he had made his debut for England, the last amateur ever to be capped for the full England side.

From 1936 to 1972 the Great Britain amateurs struggled against teams which were often full national teams, particularly from the nations of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where professionalism had yet to be introduced. This Great Britain team had its finest hour at the 1948 London Olympics where they lost to Denmark in the Bronze medal match. The team managed to qualify for the following three tournaments, but in 1974 the distinction between amateurs and professionals was finally abandoned by The FA in London and the Great Britain Olympic team was consigned to history. It looked as if a qualifying match against Bulgaria for the 1972 games would mark the last time a Great Britain team ever took to the field.

Great Britain vs Netherland at Olympic Tournament 1948 in London. Ronald Simpson (GB, right) and Abraham Appel (NL, left). | From the FIFA Museum Archive
Great Britain vs Netherland at Olympic Tournament 1948 in London. Ronald Simpson (GB, right) and Abraham Appel (NL, left). | From the FIFA Museum Archive (click to enlarge)

The demise of the Great Britain team coincided with the crumbling of the British Empire which for 200 years had straddled the world. In this new world order, newly independent countries were quick to join the ranks of FIFA, and some started to question why the United Kingdom retained its entitlement to have four separate affiliated associations. At the same time attitudes within the United Kingdom were changing. The Scots had played a defining role in Empire but in the vacuum that was left, Scottish nationalism quickly rose to the surface to fill the void. This combination of nationalism and the perceived threat to Scotland’s place in the football world meant the idea of a Great Britain team quickly became a taboo subject, a sentiment that was shared in Wales and Northern Ireland.

This process was further enhanced by the devolution process of the 1990s where many of the powers held by the parliament in Westminster were transferred to newly created parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff. A natural outcome of this process was the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The Scots voted to stay in the Union, but the Brexit vote two years later, where a huge majority in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, has seen passionate calls for a second referendum.

The rebirth of the GB team at the 2012 London Olympics
It was in these unlikely circumstances that the idea of a Great Britain team emerged once more, and it came in connection with the 2012 Olympics in London. As hosts, there was a place reserved for Great Britain in both the men’s and women’s football tournaments. The question was could an agreement be reached that mirrored the 1936 accord between the four associations. From the start there was opposition to the idea from fans and politicians alike with the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond particularly vociferous in opposing the idea. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations also refused to have anything to do with it despite assurances from FIFA that it would not affect their status within FIFA. They did agree in the end, however, that they would have no objections to The FA entering an English team.

Players of Team GB before a match at the men’s Olympic football tournament 2012 in London. © Jamie McDonald/FIFA via Getty Images
Players of Team GB before a match at the men’s Olympic football tournament 2012 in London. © Jamie McDonald/FIFA via Getty Images (click to enlarge)

In the event a number of Welsh players, including Ryan Giggs, expressed a desire to play for the men’s team and five were selected for the squad, with Giggs as captain. The 19 strong women’s squad included 17 English players and just two Scots, who faced down criticism that they were potentially harming the status of Scottish football. Both campaigns ended in the quarter-finals with a huge Wembley crowd of 70,584 watching the women beat Brazil 1-0 in their final group match, a record attendance for women’s football in Europe until broken nine days later in the Final.

It was generally thought that the 2012 Olympics would be a final hurrah for a Great Britain team, but in women’s football the idea never really went away. Unlike the men’s tournament, which is age-restricted, the status of the women’s tournament remains at the highest level and works in parallel with the World Cup at the pinnacle of the global game. Europe has always used the final positions in the previous year’s Women’s World Cup to determine its entrants to the Olympics and the England women’s team has ‘qualified’ four times – in 1996, 2008, 2016, and 2020. In the wake of the 2012 experiment there were moves by The FA in London to enter a team for 2016 should England finish among the top three European nations at the 2015 World Cup – which they did – but the idea wasn’t welcomed by the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish associations. With FIFA indicating that there would have to be an agreement between the four associations for an entry to be accepted, the idea was quietly dropped.

Women’s football playing the leading role
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. The British Olympic Association had been the prime mover behind the 2012 experiment, and they remained keen on promoting the possibility of a British women’s football team at the Olympics. In October 2018 an agreement was reached between the four British associations with regard to a women’s team (not the men’s) which was communicated to FIFA, but right from the start it looked to be a shaky accord. At the 2019 World Cup draw that month for which both England and Scotland had qualified, FIFA announced that England would be the nominated country to try to qualify, a decision which was not very popular in Scotland. But qualify England did, by reaching the semi-finals in France.

Team GB celebrating a goal at the women’s Olympic football tournament at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. © Imago
Team GB celebrating a goal at the women’s Olympic football tournament at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. © Imago (click to enlarge)

And so, to the Tokyo Games where the latest chapter of this 113-year old story of British football at the Olympics was written. On 27 May 2021, coach Hege Riise, a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist with Norway, announced the 18-player squad for the delayed Games. Cue further controversy after just Kim Little and Caroline Weir from Scotland and Wales’ Sophie Ingle were amongst those named with England providing 15 players.

This begs the further question… just who does this team represent? Can you be a fan of Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales as well as being a fan of a British team made up mostly of English players? There are also mixed feelings amongst the players. Scotland’s record goalscorer Julie Fleeting was adamant that she would never consider playing for Great Britain when she was mentioned as a potential member of the 2012 squad. Yet at the same time her teammate Kim Little went on record as saying, “I don't see why anyone would want to stop a player from playing at a massive tournament like the Olympics.” Nine years later she took her place in Tokyo as one of four survivors from the squad at the London Olympics and once again reaching the quarter-finals.

Kim Little in the jersey of Team GB at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. © Imago
Kim Little in the jersey of Team GB at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. © Imago (click to enlarge)

It’s impossible to predict how the next chapter of this story will unfold post Tokyo. Brexit in particular could be a game changer as the very future of the United Kingdom as a single entity dominates political debate in the country. If we could take a glimpse of the future through a crystal ball, we may see the four British nations taking their place at the Olympics as independent nations, with the concept of Team GB as a distant and quaint memory. But a Great Britain football team could also be a story that runs and runs as that famous British trait of pragmatism comes into play. In 50 years-time football fans across the British Isles may well still be debating the merits or not of a Great Britain football team, but one thing is for sure, it’s a story in which the women are likely to be playing the leading role.