Why we need a British football team
Having drastically misjudged the amount of money we would need to hold the Olympics in the middle of a recession, it's surprising that the greatest controversy surrounding the London Games concerns our football team – a sport most people don’t even notice at Olympic level.
But opposition to the plan is broad and deep. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish FAs are against it, fearing their identity will be subsumed under its banner. The Scottish National party (SNP) government in Hollyrood has made its opposition to the plan more than clear, in language designed to provoke the most ire among its supporters. Alex Salmond has called it a "massive own goal". "The whole concept's ridiculous" he continued.
Those who want the end of the United Kingdom fear the plans for the same reason those of us who love this country should support them. They understand the power of sport. They understand its uncluttered, transcendental glory.
Look, for instance, at the two terrorist attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks. The first involved an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. Eight people died, including six policemen. There was a saturation of media coverage internationally, even from countries like the UK which were unrelated to any of the countries involved.
The second, a gun attack on a police training centre outside Lahore, involved the same number of deaths (all police cadets) and the wounding of nearly 100 others. The media coverage here was minimal. It struggled to make it on the front page of many newspapers.
There is a very simple reason for this. Sport represents, for most people, a world entirely detached from politics and violence. It is pure and uncorrupted. An attack on a visiting sports team seemed like a gross encroachment on an undiluted and untainted thing. It was an affront to sport's ability to unite, to bring people together who could never understand each other's speech or cultural mores.
It's for this reason that the opposition to a British football team is so vociferous. Scottish and Welsh nationalists cannot afford for sport's power to be harnessed against their political interests. Especially in this country, which loves sport more than any other. After all, a British team might make people realise what Britain can achieve when it is united. It was in these Isles that nearly every sport you care to mention was born: football, cricket, rugby, tennis, golf. And football, of course, presents the greatest threat, because it is the sport closest to Britons' hearts.
There's no way to convince those who are truly committed to independence from the UK of your viewpoint. It's not the kind of issue where you change your mind. But for those of us who believe in Britain, we should add our voices to those calling for a British Olympic football team.
We can see what the World Cup does to the English; the sudden, sunny pride that fills the streets, the flags on cars. International football prompts a love for your country, a strong sense of belonging, of having your emotions entwined with those of the people around you. Sport gives us many things beyond its mere ability to divert, and the most important of those things is a sense of belonging.
This country is terribly confused about itself and its place in the world. Now, more than ever, it needs a sense of belonging. People's sense of being English, Scottish or Welsh needs no confirmation – it is firmly entrenched. And quite right too. But our shared traits are being forgotten. Our sense of humour, our self-deprecation, our culture – these things are shared, by and large, across Britain. Football can help us remember some of that. Even if it is only Olympic football.