Team GB women make their Olympic football return, but what about the men?
The presence of Team GB's women in this year's Tokyo Games football tournament raises hopes the men could make an Olympic return
On Wednesday morning, as most people back home prepare to start the working day, Great Britain women's footballers will begin their bid to become Olympic champions on the other side of the world.
The stands in the Sapporo Dome will be empty as they face Chile in their opening game of the tournament: a reminder, if needed, that these will not be the Tokyo Games anyone initially envisaged. Nevertheless, this will still be a significant occasion. The presence of a British football team in Japan is an achievement in itself, marking the end of a turbulent journey.
Team GB's women's side made their debut at an Olympics in London nine years ago. They, like their male counterparts, made it to the quarter-finals before being eliminated. Neither British team returned in Rio de Janeiro four years later, but the women's team secured a berth at Tokyo 2020 thanks to England's performance in the World Cup in 2019.
Preparations, though, have been far from smooth. The game against Chile will be the first played by Team GB's women since their quarter-final defeat to Chile in London nearly a decade ago. Even a pre-tournament warm-up game with Zambia in Stoke was called off at the start of the month.
Added to this, there's been uncertainty over who would take charge of the team. Phil Neville had been expected to take the role after managing England at the World Cup, but his departure and subsequent appointment by Inter Miami saw Hege Riise confirmed as Team GB head coach in March.
Most of Riise's team has been made up of English players after other home nation governing bodies made it known they were not supportive of a combined team. Though a predominantly English side may appear an advantage given the lack of playing time a multi-nation side would have been afforded, it should also be noted that England - also managed on an interim basis by Riise - have played just three times this calendar year. All of the other teams at the Olympics have played at least one more game in the same period of time; the USA - reigning world champions - have played four times as many games.
All this considered, finishing in the podium positions may represent too much of a challenge for Team GB's women. But knowing the backstory, knowing that they have still, in spite of everything, made it to Tokyo, can be framed as a positive. It does, however, raise the obvious question: why, then, will there be no men's team?
The simple answer is that they didn't merit one. The men's Olympic tournament consists of predominantly Under-23 teams (Under-24s in Tokyo, due to one-year delay) with three over-age players also permitted. The four places designated to European nations are given to the teams who make it to the semi-finals of the most recent European Under-21s tournament. Any faint British hopes rested with England, who failed to make it out of their group in the 2019 tournament after defeats to France and Romania.
Even if England's youngsters had done enough to qualify, there is still little chance a British men's team would have been at the Olympics. FIFA confirmed in October 2018 that England's women had been nominated by the football associations of the four home nations to try and secure a place for Great Britain at the Tokyo Games. This agreement, however, did not apply to the men's teams.
The men's team's appearance in 2012 came only as a result of being hosts. The team comprised mainly of English players, with several Welsh internationals - most notably Ryan Giggs - also featuring in the squad. Managed by Stuart Pearce, they were beaten by South Korea on penalties. Despite this disappointment, there was still a sense that the potential was there for the men to compete in the Olympics more regularly.
Gareth Southgate, the Football Association's head of elite development at the time, spoke openly of the opportunity it presented to young players and viewed it as an opportunity to gain vital tournament experience at a relatively early stage of their careers. Southgate was named England's U-21 manager the following year, but his belief that the Olympics presented young players with such valuable experiences saw him help put forward an FA proposal to explore the possibility of further Olympic entries.
Any hopes that Team GB's men might return in Rio in 2016 were swiftly dashed. The FA, having initially ruled out the idea of entering any teams, expressed a wish to field teams in both the men's and women's tournament in 2015. This, though, was met with an abrupt rejection from the governing bodies of the other home nations.
Trefor Lloyd Hughes, then the president of the Football Association of Wales, was particularly scathing in his criticism, accusing the FA of not keeping to their agreements.
“I am absolutely gutted with the English FA - very, very disappointed," he said at the time. "If they want to work with us they have to be more open with us and they don’t seem to be keeping to agreements. I’m livid about it.
"As far as the Olympics is concerned it was not long ago that they said London 2012 was just a one-off. Now it appears they have decided on their own to enter a team without discussing it with us."
This remains the state of play, with the reluctance of Premier League clubs to allow their players to participate in a competition which forms no part of the FIFA calendar also likely to pose problems should a breakthrough ever be made.
There is, however, fresh hope. Speaking in May, Mark England, Team GB's Chef de Mission, refused to rule out the return of the men's team, possibly as soon as the Paris Games of 2024. The presence of the women's side at these Games, he said, shows it could be possible.
"I would absolutely love to take a men’s football team to the Olympic games," he said. "I think the experiences that the women have had through the home country FAs hopefully will be that positive step and impetus for an open dialogue on men’s teams in the future."
Many hurdles will need to be cleared in the next three years if England is to get his wish. But in the women's team there is proof, perhaps, that this is not as impossible as some might have feared.
Should Riise's side overcome the adversities of their preparations for the Tokyo Games, the calls to see them joined by their male counterparts in Paris will surely grow louder.