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Page last updated at 10:02 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

GB football tops Olympic agenda

and's Barry Ferguson and Wales' Jason Koumas

By Matt Slater

Great Britain must field both a men's and a women's football team at London 2012, says Britain's new Olympic boss.

Andy Hunt, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, hopes to reach agreement with Britain's four national football associations.

But progress will not be easy when talks take place this spring as only the English are in favour of a GB team.

"I'm sure the British people really want to see a unified team in the 2012 Olympics," Hunt told BBC Sport.

"Football is the important sport in this country and British involvement in the Olympic tournament would be incredibly exciting.

"The national football associations need to come together to resolve this matter for the British people."

Hunt's comments come a few weeks after Fifa, world football's governing body, announced any British team at London 2012 would have no effect on the home nations' independent status.

The Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh football associations, however, remain to be convinced of this and they fear any move to create a Great Britain team would automatically lead many in world football to question why the four nations do not compete as a single entity all the time.

The Scottish Football Association has been particularly vocal in its opposition to a British Olympic team and has frequently refused to countenance any threat to its independence for what it dismisses as a second-rate, under-23 tournament.

But speaking before Christmas, Fifa president Sepp Blatter said his organisation's executive committee had no problem with the four British associations coming together as a one-off for the London Olympics.

We understand the national associations' fears but there are lots of precedents that show this can work, the Lions, for example

BOA chief executive Andy Hunt
A number of ideas have already been proposed: a play-off between the four to decide who represents Britain, simply letting England participate as Britain or letting all four in and playing them under special Olympic banner.

The four associations must now report back to Fifa in March with their thoughts on what should happen next and how any British representation in London would be selected - Hunt wants the BOA to help coordinate this process.

He also believes Blatter's word should be good enough for the anti-GB camp.

"I think it's good news Fifa has given the assurance to the national associations that it has," the 44-year-old said.

"And one would hope any international governing body would be able to make that kind of statement and that it would be backed. I can't comment personally on Fifa but I think it is the right level of assurance.

"We understand the fears (of the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh associations) but there are lots of precedents that show this can work, (rugby union's) Lions, for example."

Team GB, which won football golds at the 1900, 1908 and 1912 Games with largely amateur teams, has not tried to qualify a team for the Olympic tournament since 1974.

England's women's team hoped to compete for Britain at last year's Beijing Games, having qualified via the 2007 Women's World Cup, but were blocked by Fifa from taking part.

But with the Olympics returning to Britain for the first time since 1948 - the year after Fifa awarded the four "Home Nations" independent status and considerable influence in world football - calls for a 2012 challenge have grown.

And with games scheduled for Old Trafford, St James' Park, Villa Park and Wembley in England, Glasgow's Hampden Park and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, there is no doubt what effect British involvement would have in terms of ticket sales and atmosphere.

The inclusion of British football players would also help the BOA reach its goal of fielding its largest team at an Olympics.

Team GB numbered 311 in Beijing - China's team was 639-strong - and Hunt wants that to increase to "550 to 600 athletes" in 2012.

But for that to happen, UK Sport, the agency that distributes public money to elite sport, will need to fill the 50m gap in its budget for 2012 preparations.

In fact, eight Olympic sports are still waiting to hear exactly how much money they will be given to spend, although they know drastic cuts in their programmes are almost inevitable.

"We have a unique opportunity as host nation in that we pre-qualify for all the events in 2012," said Hunt.

"And we were very disappointed when the government was unable to meet its original commitment, as that 50m gap in funding will have a negative impact on a number of the sports.

"But more importantly, we are working closely with UK Sport to work out ways to use our fund-raising expertise to help those sports put together credible and high-performing teams for London. We are confident we can do that."

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see also
GB football team gets Fifa assent
20 Dec 08 |  Olympics
Brown leads anti-Team GB campaign
12 Dec 08 |  Internationals
Fifa says Team GB 'poses no risk'
12 Nov 08 |  Scotland
Team GB boss outlines 2012 plan
21 Oct 08 |  Olympics
Salmond rejects UK football team
25 Aug 08 |  Scotland
Ferguson wanted for GB 2012 role
25 Aug 08 |  Football
Blatter welcomes GB football team
04 Aug 08 |  Football
Government backs GB football team
04 Mar 08 |  Football
IFA now opposed to GB 2012 teams
30 Oct 07 |  Football
FA wants GB team in 2012 Olympics
06 Jul 05 |  Olympics 2012

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