Amateurism, indeed!

Truth to tell the Olympic football tournament has been something of a hybrid after it, like the Olympics themselves, restarted after the First World War, in 1920. By Brian Glanville.

Gareth Bale, you might say, has been made the villain of the piece. The Olympic football piece! The Spurs and Wales left winger, arguably one of the best players in Europe, where he has flourished, let alone in Britain, seemed an automatic choice for the first Great Britain team to compete in the Olympic soccer tournament since 1960 in Italy. But Bale announced that he wouldn’t be fit; only to turn out for Spurs on the eve of the Olympic tournament, on their foreign tour, his afflicted hamstring somehow belatedly cured. Bale himself was quite blameless.

Not that this would much concern the Welsh Football Association, who were not a bit keen to let their players take part in the tournament though Ramsey, Bellamy, the ever dynamic Allen and the remarkable 37-year-old Ryan Giggs did. Scotland and Northern Ireland released no players at all. The reason evidently being that, despite assurances from FIFA, there was a danger of the four British countries losing their independent status, were they to join a Great Britain team.

The marginality of Olympic football so far as the British game is concerned was bleakly emphasised when, on the day before the team’s first match against Senegal at Old Trafford, the press room there, usually packed out with journalists when Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson gave a conference, attracted a mere seven reporters.

Truth to tell the Olympic football tournament has been something of a hybrid after it, like the Olympics themselves, restarted after the First World War, in 1920. Camouflaged professionalism was already endemic, even though the British soccer teams, which went in and out of the tournament over the inter-war years, still selected amateurs. The last of such Great Britain teams having contested the Olympics with substantial valour and effect in Italy in 1960. How well I remember watching a gallant display in Rome’s Flaminio Stadium against a full strength Italy under-21 team, which included the present manager of Ireland, Gianni Trapattoni and the precocious 17-year-old playmaker, Gianni Rivera.

All of them full professionals, of course, in a supposedly still all-amateur tournament. The Italians deviously got round the problem by emphasising that under Italian regulations no player could turn professional till he was over 21. Therefore what were the under-21 players? Why, amateurs. On television the evening before the Senegal opener, three members of that resourceful side, which held Italy to a dramatic 2-2 draw, were interviewed. I was sorry not to see my old friend Mike Pinner with them.

Mike kept goal that day. Five times a Cambridge Blue in the annual fixture against Oxford University, he had gone on to play as an amateur in the top division for Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday. But on Sundays he would turn out on the left wing for my little team, Chelsea Casuals because, despite the low quality of the football, he liked the company.

Now the British Olympic team has found a splendid new goalkeeper in the 19-year-old Jack Butland who when he was thrown on the field as a second half substitute in the pre-tournament friendly against a greatly gifted young Brazil team, has yet to play a single first team game for his club, Birmingham City. Yet he made at least three brave, resilient saves to keep the score down to the respectable 2-0 which it had been at half-time.

All credit to Stuart Pearce, Britain’s much tried manager, for gambling on Butland, who will now plainly challenge Joe Hart for the role of full England goalkeeper. Pearce is also to be praised for resisting the mistaken siren calls for David Beckham to be chosen for the squad. Surely one felt Beckham, 37 years old now and less capable than ever of beating a full back down the wing, pulling the ball back from the goal line and showing any signs of speed had been more than sufficiently indulged by Fabio Capello when he inexplicably gave him one cheap England cap after another as a briefly fielded substitute, even allowing him numerically if not deservedly to overtake the 108 caps record of Bobby Moore, who won them for 90-minute displays, bar the 1966 World Cup final, when he played with extra-time 120.

If Britain, by and large has snubbed the Olympic soccer tournament, it matters very much indeed in South America, not least to Brazil who till now have never won it. Their present young team includes such dazzling attacker stars as Neymar — despite his penchant for feigning injury — Lucas, Ganso, Oscar (just sold for a fortune to Chelsea) and Damiao. Though, despite the eagerness of the young Brazilians, with the 2014 World Cup at home in view, it might be emphasised that of their two goals, the first was a gift from a confused England defence, the second the result of a clumsily conceded penalty.

Uruguay too take the Olympics seriously. Away back in the 1920s, their superb team, probably the best in the world at the time, won the Olympic title in 1924 and 1928 then promptly withdrew, as obvious professionals, from Olympic football, and then staging and wining the first ever World Cup in 1930, in Montevideo. Amateurism, indeed!

You have to go back to 1908 and 1912 to find a British winner; all members of the team being English amateurs playing regularly for leading professional clubs, such as Vivian Woodward, a famous attacker with Londoners Spurs and Chelsea. Each time they beat a muscular and surprisingly resourceful Danish team in the final, in Shepherds Bush and in Stockholm. Fast forward to 1960 in Rome, where a far more elegant and inventive Danish team reached the final. One more memory! The glittering Swedish team — three Nordahl brothers Gunnar, Knut, Bertil — which won the final at Wembley. Its amateur stars then departing en masse to make money in Italy, while amateur Sweden struggled without them.