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By James Restall
It’s often been bandied around that the England team of 1998-2006 were perpetual underachievers.
Three quarter finals and three heartbreaking eliminations on penalties were all the Three Lions had to show from an eight year period during which they were touted as favourites for World Cups and Euros.
Perhaps England’s “golden generation” might have been more successful had they entered into the Atlanta Olympics as part of a Team GB. In 1996, Nigeria took the gold with South American double of Argentina and Brazil as runners up – all three teams would yield players who faced England at major tournaments in the following six years.
Granted, the FA had a lot more to worry about in 1996 with the European Championships being hosted on English soil and the small matter of a penalty shootout against Germany. But while the senior players were struggling to emulate the heroes of ’66, our young guns could have been gaining valuable international experience in a tournament of their own.
A 1996 Team GB would have been a force to be reckoned with. Eligible under-23 players would have included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and Ryan Giggs, while a 17-year-old Michael Owen banging in the goals in the England youth setup could have had an early taste of international tournament football. After all, if Hernan Crespo and Ronaldo could light up the tournament with their goals, why not Owen?
Games against Nigeria, Argentina and Brazil would have given the players valuable experience for future meetings. Perhaps Becks & co would have had the tactical knowhow to edge past the Brazilians in 2002? Maybe we would have been spared the bore draw against Nigeria? And while it’s not in the Olympic spirit, Becks could have had a dress rehearsal of Diego Simeone’s latest play…
Most importantly, these players might have tasted the sweet success of becoming Olympic medallists, giving them a vital dose of international tournament triumph which eluded them for the rest of their careers.
This is why London 2012 is crucial in the development of the current crop of Team GB hopefuls. England and Wales will benefit from having their future stars (the likes of Sturridge, Cleverley, Allen and Ramsey) starring on the world stage in front of millions. For Jack Butland, who has only played League football for Cheltenham Town in League Two, this experience will be far more useful to him than any under-19 or 21 tournament could.
Olympic Men’s Football is essentially a youth competition but for one of sport’s ultimate prizes – if the sight of Daniel Sturridge, Tom Cleverley and Aaron Ramsey parading their gold medals around Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and the Emirates before the first game of next season isn’t an inspiration to the next generation of British footballers then I don’t know what is. And with the 31st Olympiad being held in Rio in 2016, where better for our young stars to take their bow on the world stage than the Maracana?
If Team GB seize the gold medal at Wembley next week they will have inspired a generation in the summer football came home.