There is no disputing the fact that Gary Speed’s rejuvenation of the Wales team in recent months has created a buzz around the international scene that has sadly been lacking in recent years. With a friendly against Norway the next test on Saturday, all the pre-match hype should be about how far the team has progressed in such a short space of time, with hopes high for the next qualifying campaign.
Yet sadly, it seems another topic of conversation is destined to dominate proceedings as the row over Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics rumbles on.
Both Gareth Bale and Wales captain Aaron Ramsey have sparked controversy in recent weeks, after both were pictured posing in a commemorative Team GB shirt courtesy of sponsors Adidas. With the FAW, SFA and IFA all maintaining their firm stance against the inclusion of their players in the competition, the decision to go against the Home Associations has added fuel to the already raging fire.
Tottenham midfielder Bale was the first to be pictured in the shirt, raising concerns that some of Wales’ players who are eligible to play in the U23 tournament, are prepared to ignore the warnings from the FAW and make themselves available for selection.
When Aaron Ramsey followed suit this week, those who sit firmly in the ‘No to Team GB’ camp were furious that concerns over the future of Wales as an independent football nation were seemingly being ignored by arguably the two players most likely to be the face of Wales’ footballing future.
While the debate has raged for the past four years, as the games approach, there is growing apprehension that the formation of a Team GB could jeopardise the independent status of all four Home Nation Associations. There is a long-held view within FIFA that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should compete jointly under the banner of Great Britain on a permanent basis and many fear that a Team GB at the Olympics would pave the way for them to enhance their case.
Back in 2008, Sepp Blatter was quoted as saying:
“If you put together a combined team for the Olympics, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations, so how can they play in one team?”
He has since given assurances in March this year that participation in the competition would not incur any sanction or affect each country’s independent status in other competitions, but the sceptics remain unconvinced and fear the setting of a precedent could be used against them in the future.
As London 2012 draws nearer, however, it appears the lines between for and against are becoming more blurred. While the FAW have remained firm in their anti-Team GB stance, their position appears to be increasingly undermined by those around them. President Phil Pritchard, when questioned recently about Bale and Ramsey’s involvement in the publicity campaign, expressed his disappointment at their decision and reiterated that:
“The FAW remains committed in supporting the Home Nations playing all representative football under their respective flags as independent members of FIFA and UEFA.”
Yet, this viewpoint, while admittedly still supported by a large section of Wales supporters, is beginning to look somewhat foolish when current players are prepared to ignore the warnings and pledge their desire to be involved.
Couple this with comments from Craig Bellamy, John Hartson and Robert Earnshaw who have all openly stated they have no problem with Bale and Ramsey taking part and fully understand their desire to have the opportunity to win a medal and the position of the FAW is weakened further.
Ramsey has even taken to his Twitter page to reassure fans he has thought carefully about the decision, writing:
“Relax everyone, there is absolutely no way I would play in the Olympic team if it was going to affect Wales’ identity as an individual nation!”
Even manager Gary Speed has reiterated that the final decision rests with the players. Both he and the FAW know they are powerless to prevent them playing but he has revealed he intends to meet with them this week to discuss their plans.
The argument that participation in the Olympics will impact on the Wales friendly Speed is planning for August is unfounded as the game will come four days after the tournament ends.
So, is it the players who need educating or are the FAW and the other Home Associations worrying unnecessarily?
England certainly appear to have few qualms and indeed the other associations all reportedly gave their blessing for an all-England team to compete under the Team GB banner. Any resulting team will be governed by the FA, who have appointed England U21 coach Stuart Pearce as manager.
Many will argue that the English FA have less to fear should FIFA decide to impose a Great Britain team in future competitions, as they would have the greatest stronghold on the national team but this cannot be used as the sole argument for resisting inclusion.
The experience the likes of Bale, Ramsey and Swansea City’s Joe Allen would gain from participating in the tournament alongside the best players from the other nations will surely only benefit Wales in the long run? Maybe it’s time the FAW looked at the bigger picture.