Football and the First World War in South Wales

It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.

Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914

In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory.  There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded.  At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year

The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on.  The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’.  He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results.  Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.

The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis.  It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting.  Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist.  They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.

5 Sep 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.

19 September 1914

Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.

The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer.  The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities.  The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.

In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.

Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.

9 january 1915

Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915

Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort.  Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist.  On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.

blackburn-1915
Recruitment advertisement from Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers FA Cup match programme 1915 (Swans100 archive)

The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales.  The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers.  However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.

Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.

In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.

Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue.  In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent.  Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs.  Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.

By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes.  Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions.  Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.

24 July 1915

Sporting News, 24 July 1915

1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily.  Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult.  Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate.  Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.

For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives.  Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started.  In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front.  As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers.  He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.

Adapated from Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-39 (University of Wales Press, 2002).

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A Supporters’ History of the South Wales Derby

1912In 1912, Swansea Town played its first ever professional match, a Southern League game against Cardiff City. Although 12,000 people attended the 1-1 draw, it was a match that drew very little attention in the wider world. Professional football was still in its infancy and new clubs were being set up across the UK.  There was no guarantee that any of them would last. 

But last they did and, after the Great War, football’s popularity in south Wales soared.  Cardiff and Swansea both joined the Football League and Cardiff quickly rose to its first division, becoming one of the most famous clubs in Britain.  Its elevation meant derbies were not common but 1929 saw Cardiff slip out of the first division, bringing the first Football League match between the two clubs. Special trains and buses were put on to the game from across south Wales. Such was the interest that Merthyr Town even rearranged a match to avoid a clash.

The game mattered to Swansea more. In 1925, the Swansea chairman had suggested that a league match between the two clubs might help decide the ‘vexed question’ of the capital of Wales.  Although it was not until 1955 that Cardiff was officially declared the capital, Swansea still felt in the shadow of its larger neighbour, especially since Cardiff was a city and Swansea was not.  Moreover, there was some feeling that Cardiff’s claim to capital status was unfair because the city was more anglicized than Swansea. Football matches between the two clubs thus offered the Swans the opportunity to prove their equality with their larger neighbour.

Cardiff’s lesser interest in the derby was illustrated by a 1925 fifth-round Welsh Cup match between the two.  Feeling the league and its imminent FA Cup final more important, Cardiff City appeared to deliberately play badly, indulging in, according to one Swansea newspaper, ‘childish methods’ and ‘pompous swank’.  Despite winning 4-0, Swansea Town had missed out on an opportunity to secure a meaningful victory over its rival and its supporters felt insulted.

The proximity of the two clubs did, however, mean attendances at the derby were very high. In 1949, there were 60,855 at NinianPark for a Division 2 match between the two teams, a record for the derby that will probably never be broken. Fans remember the derbies of the 1940s and 50s as having a friendly atmosphere. There was certainly banter between the unsegregated supporters but nothing worse.  Indeed, both sets of fans were happy to see the other do well, bound by a common south Walian identity.

Some supporters, particularly those who lived somewhere between Cardiff and Swansea, were also willing to pay to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. In 1952, the Swansea Town manager asked the league if home games could be scheduled when first-division Cardiff City were playing away. He feared Swans fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

A hint of a more bitter rivalry emerged in 1960, when Cardiff, angry at the scheduling of the match, fielded a reserve side for a Welsh Cup fixture between the two teams. This brought a 350 guinea fine and a rebuke from the Football Association of Wales, who told the capital’s club to show the competition more respect. Swansea’s directors were also insulted by their Cardiff counterparts refusing to join them in the boardroom. It was a bad tempered match that saw three players sent off.

Football crowds were in decline by this time. Standing on a cold terrace was less appealing than watching television, doing DIY or taking the family out for a spin, all pursuits enabled by the new post-war working-class affluence. Many family men thus stopped going to matches.  Crowds grew younger and began to take on the characteristics of the modern youth culture that emerged in the 1950s. With their confidence and opportunities boosted by rising wages and near full employment, boys and men in their teens and early twenties travelled to away matches in large numbers, adopted fashions that made them stand out, drank more than earlier generations and acted more aggressively. The result was that fighting, swearing and obscene chanting all became relatively common at football matches in the 1960s and the sport gave young men a fun outlet for proving their masculinity.

Alongside these changes, patterns of regional support declined. This was a reaction to the rise of the televised game and more affordable travel, which both contributed to the biggest clubs drawing more and more supporters from outside their traditional catchment areas. For younger supporters who stayed with their local teams, there appears to have been resentment about people following other teams and regional rivalries began to replace regional identities.

The relationship between the two sets of fans thus changed and many began wanting their local rivals to lose. By 1969, this had spilled over into the first crowd trouble at the south Wales derby. In a two-leg Welsh Cup final, Cardiff fans vandalised a train on their return home and then, at the second leg at Ninian Park, they attacked two coaches carrying Swansea fans, smashing windows and denting the sides.

There was no league derby between the two sides between 1965 and 1980 and that held back the derby from becoming too embroiled in the growing football hooligan culture.  But the 1980 derby inevitably saw trouble and two weeks later fans clashed again after a bizarre decision to hold an FA Cup replay between Swansea and Crystal Palace at Ninian Park. There was considerable fighting on the terraces between Swansea supporters and Cardiff fans who had either turned up to see the match or perhaps just to enjoy a scuffle. The low point came outside the ground when a Swansea fan was stabbed to death in a fight with Palace supporters.

It was the 1980s that really saw the tensions intensify. Football hooliganism was peaking everywhere in Britain and south Wales was no different. Cardiff fans, however, had a new reason to dislike their neighbours down the M4.  In 1981, Swansea were promoted to the first division and their manager was John Toshack, a former Cardiff City cult hero. This created not just jealousy but a feeling that the natural order of things had been turned upside down. In a derby in Swansea’s promotion season, their fans threw bricks at cars and houses. At the 1982 Welsh Cup final, it was golf balls that were exchanged between the two fans and a policeman was hospitalized by a dart.

As both clubs fell on hard times, the extent of the rivalry became something of a badge of honour. Some fans looked at it as something that put their teams on the map. They might not be able to compete with the big boys on the pitch but south Wales had a derby to rival anywhere. It was gaining its own legends and language too. Swansea fans became ‘Gypos’, in reference to the perceived poverty of Wales’s second city. Cardiff fans were greeted by breast-stroking players and supporters who sang ‘swimaway, swimaway’, a reference to a group of teenage Cardiff fans being chased into the sea at a 1988 derby.

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The climax of trouble came at the 1993 ‘Battle of Ninian Park’. Swansea fans ripped up seats and hurled them at rival fans, which prompted a pitch invasion. Mounted police and dogs had to clear the pitch and control the situation. The game was delayed by forty minutes, eight fans were hospitalized and nine were arrested.

It was a turning point. CardiffCity chairman Rick Wright announced ‘If we allow these savages to enter our stadia and take their money, we cannot hold anyone else responsible for the scenes of carnage they create. It is all too easy for Cardiff to blame Swansea, for Swansea to blame Cardiff, for Cardiff and Swansea to blame the police. But the responsibility lies with the clubs.’

The result of the new determination to do something was the banning of away fans from the fixture. But the damage had been done and the next time the two clubs met in 1994, just 3,711 turned up to the Vetch. For many supporters, the derby had become something to avoid rather than get excited about.

Although hooliganism was a problem at most clubs, and Welsh fans were certainly playing up to the expectations of the time, there were some unique factors to the south Wales derby. In Swansea, there was some feeling that the BBC was too Cardiff-centric and that the club’s rise up through the divisions had not been given adequate coverage. Accusations of a Welsh media bias towards the capital grew and extended from the BBC to HTV Wales and the Western Mail. The size, extent and placing of coverage were all carefully scrutinized and Swansea fans could be quick to take offence at both real and imagined inequalities.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay in the 1990s, funded by millions of pounds of central government money, threw another source of resentment into the mix. There was little surprise when the National Assembly was located in the capital but there was bitterness over how Swansea had been given the impression that it could win a farce of a competition over where to locate the new home of Welsh democracy.

Things did get better. Hooliganism went out of fashion. Policing and stewarding became better organised and managed. Both clubs got new all-seater stadiums that were closely monitored by CCTV. It was easier to identify troublemakers but people were also simply less likely to cause problems if they were sitting down.  When away fans returned to the fixture in 1997, they were herded in and out of the ground in police-escorted convoys. There was little opportunity to get anywhere near a rival fan, although that did not stop some vandalism of their rivals’ stadium or a few minor skirmishes with police.

Of course, not all fans have shared in the hatred. There were many on both sides who saw it as a bit childish or who were quite happy to see a fellow Welsh team doing well. Many Swansea fans have certainly welcomed Cardiff’s promotion to Premier League because it was an opportunity to have a derby again. There is even at least one person who has season tickets for both clubs.

Saturday’s derby will be a long way removed from the first match between the two clubs in 1912. The audience will be global and the atmosphere far more hostile.  No doubt there will be some songs sung and gestures made that would shock the supporter of a hundred years ago and will confuse the modern foreign audiences watching.  But, however much local pride is at stake, one thing hasn’t changed. You do not get more points for beating your neighbour than you do for beating any other team in the division. In that sense at least, even if in no other, it’s just another game.

Two voices of reason from football’s past

A letter from a Cardiff City fan to the South Wales Echo (3 Dec. 1927) that the club’s present ownership would do well to think about.

“The true position with the City at the moment has nothing to do with the players but concerns the management, and I’m afraid that unless they consider a little more of the wishes of the supporters they will kill the bird that lays the golden egg.  If the directors would mingle with the crowd, instead of being perched like tin gods in their reserved stands, they would find that what I say is true.”

A letter to the South Wales Echo (23 Feb. 1922) that the owners of all clubs would do well to think about.

“If the City is to maintain the good feeling of its supporters, it would be wise to give all classes an opportunity to see the match, because, after all, the working man is the backbone and stay of the club. It is a pity that the directors should confuse and misconstrue sport for greed, and remember the story of the magical goose.  If the directors cater only for the rich they will find that class deserting them in times of trouble.”

The first major trophy?

There is currently some criticism of the fact that both the media and Swansea fans are calling the League Cup Swansea’s first major trophy. This is being taken as an insult to the Welsh Cup, a trophy Swansea first won in 1913. However, as this extract from my book Soccer & Society: South Wales 1900-39 argues, between the wars the Welsh Cup was simply not regarded as an important competition by the football community in south Wales.

 

Despite its national consciousness and patriotic celebrations, inter-war soccer in south Wales was essentially bound to the wider English club scene and it paid little regard to all-Wales competitions such as the Welsh Cup and League.  Before 1914, the emerging soccer fraternity in the south had seen the Welsh Cup as an important route to establishing its credentials but, after the war, with local teams now playing in the higher standard and more prestigious Football League, the competition lost its appeal.  Cardiff City et al. rarely fielded their first teams in the cup and even the date of the final was often fitted around southern clubs’ league fixtures.  Matches were generally not well attended and the local press rarely made any effort to hype the games.  The venue of the 1920 Welsh Cup final was moved from Cardiff to Wrexham because it was felt that the latter town’s team would not attract a large crowd in the south where crowds were used to watching the higher standard Southern League soccer.  For the clubs from the south, becoming champions of Wales held no appeal compared with the possibility of success on the English stage that the Football League and FA Cup offered; prestige was about recognition from outside Wales, not from the politically, culturally and economically distant north.

In contrast, clubs from the north were eager to use the Welsh Cup to proclaim their equality and there was a sense of regret about the south’s apathetic attitude.  This attitude may have been different had north Wales possessed enough clubs of a sufficient standard to challenge consistently for the trophy.  However, between 1920 and 1939, the trophy was only won five times by teams from the north.  In the hope of raising the competition’s status, the FAW invited English clubs to enter in the 1930s.  Yet that failed to raise interest in the south.  The English teams that entered were mostly small clubs from the counties that bordered north and mid Wales and meant little to the inhabitants of south Wales.  The only result was embarrassment for the FAW as the trophy left Wales on seven occasions during the 1930s.  The FAW appealed for stronger efforts to bring the cup back to Wales but the calls fell on deaf ears amongst south Wales clubs whose eyes were focused on the more prestigious English competitions.

I Am The Secret Footballer review

I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game (2012)

This is both a gripping and a deeply frustrating book.

In terms of its aim of lifting the lid on the hidden world of football it’s very good and better probably than every Premier League autobiography. It’s far most honest and open than is the case with almost everything else written from within football. There’s much here on the shenanigans, the money, the mindset of players, their relationships with people outside football and about the playing of the game itself. Every fan will learn something from it.

But, in terms of trying to understand the secret footballer himself, the book is deeply frustrating. It’s not so much the fact that he’s anonymous but that so much of the detail is left out.

He talks a lot about money and about figures but at the same time is vague enough that you don’t really understand whether he’s very rich from his investments or broke from his tax bill (or both). Understanding the trajectory and nature of his career is impossible because he, understandably, doesn’t give too much away in order to protect his anonymity. This means understanding quite where he’s coming from is very difficult, as is understanding why he suffers from depression.

Indeed, building up some sympathy for the writer is almost impossible. He comes over as rather arrogant but I guess that’s inevitable with any highly-paid, high-profile elite athlete. He seems to see himself as both an insider and an outsider within football culture but how that affects his relationship with his teammates is never as explicit as it might have been. His wife is virtually absent from the book, despite the talk about the impact of home life on performances. You get the sense that while he might not want fans to know who he is, his identity within the game isn’t a secret. For all the discussion of his wages and his depression, he’s holding back.

This is shame because there was the potential here for the best book ever written about football. The writer is clearly intelligent, reflective and insightful. He could have written a very open autobiography that told us about his personality, his life, his career and the game itself. That was never going to happen though because he’s still playing and wants to stay in the game.

What he’s given us is very good but it leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. He’s just had to leave too much out in order to protect his identity and, presumably, his reputation within the game.

Why a football TeamGB is a threat to the independence of the ‘home nations’

To have an official national football team, a country has to be a member of FIFA, football’s world governing body. Membership of FIFA is not permanent. A vote by three-quarters of members can expel any FIFA member.

Article 10.1 of the FIFA statutes states:

Any Association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in its country may become a Member of FIFA. In this context, the expression “country” shall refer to an independent state recognised by the international community.

England, Scotland , Northern Ireland and Wales do not meet this criteria but do have their special position as seperate members enshrined in their own article (10.5).

FIFA also recignizes that nationhood may not be straightforward and article 10.6 states ‘An Association in a region which has not yet gained independence may, with the authorisation of the Association in the country on which it is dependent, also apply for admission to FIFA.’  Note the ‘yet’, an assumption that independence will come.

Thus the position is that the British associations having separate membership is an acknowledged contradiction to FIFA’s membership rules but one that is explicitly protected in its own statutes.

So, do the 2012 Olympics threaten that? It can’t be pretended that the Olympics are nothing to do with FIFA.  Olympic matches are regarded by FIFA as official internationals (because this means it can charge a financial levy). Can the UK say it is four nations in one FIFA competition but one in another? Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has said yes. He has repeated his belief that Olympic participation does not undermine the UK position. But Blatter is also a man prone to change his mind, something evident by his conversion to goal-line technology after a long entrenched hostility.

Moreover, in 2008 Blatter said:

If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team. If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency? This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.

Blatter is 76 years old and will not be around forever. His successor will probably want to make big changes at FIFA, to lessen the taint of scandal and corruption that hangs over its highest levels.

FIFA is also a democracy. A president may offer guidance but ultimately it’s down to what individual members think. As Blatter himself has said in a different context: ‘FIFA must not be reduced to the smallest common denominator: its President … FIFA is ultimately nothing but the expression of the will of its more than 208 Member Associations’.

The fiasco of the recent England World Cup bid illustrates that British football is not exactly held in wide regard amongst those members. Admiring the Premier League is one thing. Understanding why the British get special treatment is another.

BBC Wales have recently pointed to the trend being for more countries in FIFA not less, while Stuart Pearce has claimed that no one is calling for the return of a single Yugoslavian team. That last argument is silly because Yugoslavia no longer exists, but the UK does. The trend for more FIFA members has been because the number of independent nations has grown in the last 30 years. Of course, if Scotland votes for independence then the whole parameters of this issue will change. But the key issue is not the politics of statehood but of football.

There is historical evidence that the UK’s special position has been questioned before. For example:

  • In 1972 the Uruguay FA withdrew a proposal to end the home nations’ independence after the 4 UK associations agreed to pay FIFA a levy from the home championship (as all other nations have to from their internationals). That year the Secretary of the SFA noted ‘there was no doubt that the South American Confederation wished to remove the independence of the Four British Associations’.
  • In 1992 British delegates at the International Football Association Board were told by FIFA delegates that if they voted against the introduction of the backpass rule it would jeopardise their separate status. The FAW’s sense that its position was under threat was already so strong that it created the League of Wales in 1992 to ensure it could not just be seen as a region of English football.

The FAW were particularly shocked at the threats that surrounded the backpass rule because they had always believed they had European support for their position. Four British nations after all cemented the European domination of the world game but the break up of the old Communist bloc significantly increased the number of European members. Suddenly, Europe had less need of British votes at FIFA.

The European domination of world football is clear in the places allocated for the 2010 World Cup:

Number of countries seeking qualification Number of places allocated
Europe 53 13
Africa 53 6
Asia 43 4
Central & N America 35 3
Oceania 11 1
South America 10 5

Morever, Africa only got 6 places instead of its normal 5 because South Africa qualified automatically as hosts.

The executive of FIFA appears to think this is not an issue in which democracy should prevail. Blatter said in 2011: ‘All of the Fifa member countries have equal voting rights, but when it comes to the World Cup, which is the only income of Fifa, our executive committee agrees that those confederations that have the best football should have more representatives.’

Television money and sponsor reasons aside, the key moral argument in support of the status quo is that this is about the quality of football and FIFA rankings do support the notion that the bulk of the best teams are in Europe. But it is difficult for the rest of the world to accept European domination for reasons of  ‘quality’. There is more than a whiff of an old-fashioned western sense of superiority here, a sense that the rest of the world resents. Even in Australasia there is resentment that their continent isn’t even guaranteed at least one place.

It’s within this context of resentment about the nature of power within FIFA that the British nations’ special position can come under the spotlight. This is likely because the British privileges extend beyond just having four members.

The FIFA executive is made up of a president, 8 vice presidents and 15 members. Of these vice presidents Britain gets one, Europe gets another two and the rest of the world get five between them. The distribution of members is also skewed towards Europe.

The only justification for the UK having the same number of vice presidents as the whole of Africa is history. When football was reorganized after the Second World War, FIFA was desperate to bring in the UK nations, the inventors of the game, to legitimize its own position and buttress the organization’s financial future. The cost was giving the British a disproportionate influence.

That extends beyond the FIFA executive. The International Football Association Board is the body that sets the actual rules of the game of football. There are eight votes on this board: FIFA have 4 and the UK associations have one each. In other words, the British associations have as much say in the rules of football as the rest of the world put together.

A stranglehold on the game’s rules and a permanent vice-presidency on an executive that does not distribute the spoils of football’s centrepiece fairly mean that the British position is of interest to the rest of the world. It has a direct impact on the governance of world football and a symbolic importance. Paul Darby, a historian of African football, has noted:

The individual membership of each of the British associations, which affords them full voting rights at FIFA Congress, has been a particular source of discontent with the African football confederation. Indeed, on many occasions the membership status of the British authorities has been heavily criticised as evidence of global inequality within world football and has been cited as constituting just one manifestation of European bias and privilege within the game’s institutional and administrative structures.

Just because there isn’t currently a campaign to get rid of the UK’s four teams does not mean there won’t be in the future. And when it happens, people will point to the precedent of the 2012 Olympics.  If TeamGB competes again, as some pundits, players and the manager hope, the danger of the issue coming back will be all the greater.

There is little sentiment for tradition and history in football and it is only tradition and history that allows the four UK nations to have their own national teams.  Moreover, as long as the British nations have a disproportionate say in the power of world football then there will be those that resent the fact that the UK has four teams.

Why Wales should not take part in a Team GB at this year’s Olympics

In today’s Western Mail, Andrew RT Davies, the Welsh Conservative leader, makes a case for the inclusion of Welsh players in a Team GB football side at this year’s Olympics.  He’s wrong.

His argument is based on the following points:

1. It’s a one off and for Ryan Giggs this is his last opportunity to play in a major tournament.

If it’s individual Welsh players’ chances of competing in tournaments that matter then why stop at the Olympics? After all, Bale and co will have a better chance of making it to Brazil 2014 as part of a UK team. The argument that individuals matter more than their nation cannot be taken up or cast aside according to circumstances.  The wishes of, or sentiment for, any individual player should never take precedence over the interests of his club or national team.

2. ‘Recent statements from the FIFA president have indicated that one-off participation would not jeopardise our independent status as a national association’

This is the key issue.  Unfortunately there are older statements from the FIFA president where he essentially says completely the opposite (see Bethan Jenkins’ reply article on the same page). If Blatter’s changed his mind once he can change it again.

Moreover, as a politician, Davies should really know that the leadership and direction of democratic institutions can change.  His argument is rather like saying that because David Cameron says something now, no other future prime minister will ever say or do the opposite.  Even if it’s 50 years before a future FIFA leader raises a precedent from 2012 to question the special status of the UK nations, a Team GB would prove to be a mistake. We have to remember that to many in the football world the position of non-independent nations having independent status purely because the game was invented here seems illogical. There are already plenty of precedents to the issue being questioned and discussed. Why take the risk and give ammunition to opponents?

 3. A Team GB will not undermine a sense of Welsh nationhood.

He’s right here, but this argument is irrelevant.  The case against a football Team GB is nothing to do with whether Wales is British or not. It is about whether Wales is able to retain its independence in the football world, not in any other world.

4.  Our footballing talent stands to gain much from ‘exposing themselves to high level international competition’.

Presumably this means in developing their experience rather than their exposure to potential employers. Perhaps Bale and co will develop their talents through the experience, but there are many, many more Welsh players who will lose out on international experience if Wales cease to have their own international side.

5. ‘Giving young Welsh people the opportunity to watch their Welsh heroes playing for Team GB will have obvious benefits for increasing sports participation.’

Will it really? Is there any evidence for this at all? Are there really young kids around who would take up football just because Bale is playing for Team GB? If these guys are heroes already, then the kids must already be watching them for Wales, Spurs etc.  Why would kids be watching the football Olympics at all, if they didn’t like football already?

6. The involvement of Welsh players ‘will place our nation in the global shop window with obvious economic benefits’.

Again, is there evidence for this? If there are economic benefits to Welsh players in a Team GB, they aren’t even remotely obvious to me. Will watchers even know Bale, Ramsey and whoever is on the bench are Welsh?  Will there be some industrialist watching who thinks, “What a great player. I must open a factory near where he comes from”?

7. Not taking part will damage Wales economically and culturally.

Presumably the economic argument is the imagined opportunities discussed in point 6. The cultural damage Davies foresees seems to be that we will be isolated from ‘our British neighbours’.  Quite how not taking part in a short football tournament (some of which is held in Wales anyway) amounts to cultural damage is not clear. Did the UK’s non participation in any of any of the recent Olympic tournaments hurt Wales culturally? Did anyone here even care? Why does the fact that the Olympics are in the UK mean this issue suddenly matters?

In conclusion, a football Team GB is a potential threat to the independent status of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in football.  Yes, it is not a definite threat but it is a risk.

Sometimes we need to takes risks in life when there are obvious rewards for doing so. In this case there are no overall rewards for doing so, whereas the potential fallout would change Welsh sporting history forever.

People who look at the history of FIFA know that. The FAW and SFA know that. Any Welsh player who wants to pull on that GB shirt, and any fan or politician encouraging him to do so, needs to know that.  If you believe Wales should have its own football team, you have to be opposed to Welsh players in football’s Team GB.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. His books include A History of Sport in Wales (2005) and Wales since 1939 (2012).