With the Olympics officially declared with this afternoon’s opening ceremony, a full year after it should have gone ahead, all sporting eyes turn to Tokyo, but it’s a strange quirk of the most prestigious multi-sport competition in the world that the men’s football tournament has never quite seemed to have the prestige of other competitions. Yet, surely, the prospect of a Gold medal is something that any sportsperson would covet, and if it’s good enough for Neymar, Messi and Tevez, that’s all the advocacy it needs. And whilst Team GB’s women’s side got off to a winning start on Wednesday, with a full complement of stars that include Scotland vice-captain Kim Little, Wales captain Sophie Ingles, England captain Steph Houghton as well as the current FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, there will be no male equivalent going for Gold in Japan. And, ironically, with a golden generation of players, it may seem like an opportunity lost, so here we take a glimpse at just what a GB football side for Tokyo could have looked like.
First things first, though, let’s deal with the nitty-gritties, and the issue of eligibility. After initially being contested by amateur players in the earliest incarnations, questions over the inclusion of professional players created some controversy before a decision to keep Olympic football exclusively amateur was implemented after the emergence of the World Cup in 1930. A change in 1984 saw the inclusion of professional players once more, before the current format of Under-23 players with the addition of three Over-23 players was settled on. This may be in part why the competition has never really grabbed the football world’s imagination, but some big names have graced the tournament down the years (Puskas, Salah, Xavi and Ronaldinho, to name four) and Great Britain in fact are the second most successful team in the sport’s history, having won Gold three times in 1900, 1908 and 1912 (although the first of these in 1900 isn’t recognised by FIFA in a tournament that largely involved club sides). Hungary trump Great Britain’s record, only on the one Silver and one Bronze they have won in addition to the three Golds, whilst Brazil are reigning champions, having triumphed in Rio five years ago, on the back to three Silver Medals and two Bronze medals. Argentina, the Soviet Union and Uruguay each have two victories to their names, while a further 13 countries, in addition to Brazil, have won the tournament once before, including Poland, Nigeria and Cameroon. Sixteen teams will compete for Gold in Japan this time out and with the Under-23 format still in place – albeit Under-24 in light of the year-long delay – Team GB may have been in the reckoning. So let’s take a look at a possible line-up.
GK – Dean Henderson
Whilst there may be a temptation to choose an over-age player for the extra experience in goal, with Wales’ Danny Ward a compelling option after his performance in the Euros, Team GB are in fact blessed with two Under-23 Premier League stars in the shape of Aaron Ramsdale and Dean Henderson, the former having played 38 times last season for Sheffield United and the latter making 13 league appearances for Man United. Either could make a case for being in the starting XI.
RB – Trent Alexander Arnold
The English media were sent into virtual meltdown when Gareth Southgate announced four right-backs in his 26-man Euros squad, prior to Trent Alexander Arnold’s injury. Four right-backs seemed like an untold luxury, but it pales into comparison when Under-23 options are included, with, by my estimation, some 10 players fighting it out, including Japhet Tanganga, Reece James, Tariq Lamptey, James Justin, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Neco Williams, Matty Cash, Kyle Walker Peters and Max Aarons, all of whom have impressed in the Premier League. While Matty Cash has been a revelation at Villa, Japhet Tanganga and Tariq Lamptey are both ones to watch in the next couple of years. Trent Alexander Arnold just gets the nod for this team, but there’s backup (and lots of it) if needed.
CB – Harry Maguire (Over-age)
When choosing the Over-age (I’m not sure when 23 became Over-age in any context other than football) contingent, it’s a bit of a tactical minefield. Do you go with a goalkeeper and two centre-backs for that added experience in crucial positions? Do you just choose the three best over-age players? And in Team GB, there’s also the question of representation. For me, though, I like the idea of an ‘experienced’ spine in the team, and they don’t come much more experienced, or much better, on the back of his superb Euros performance, than Harry Maguire.
CB – Joe Rodon
With Harry Maguire offering excellent protection and support for his centre-back partner, anyone coming in would be comforted by his presence. But with an impressive Euros under his belt just last month, Joe Rodon proved he’s more than capable of being comfortable in the role himself, and at 22 – a fair fledgling in centre-back years – he already has 22 senior international caps to his name. Ben Godfrey, Ben White and Ezri Konsa all had impressive outings in the Premier League last year and would be worthy competition.
I had to double-check Kieran Tierney makes the cut, age-wise, but he comfortably eases in with some six months to spare, and how grateful we are for those six months, especially with Ben Chilwell missing out by 11 days! A rising star at Celtic, Tierney made his journey south to London in 2019 and quickly established himself as one of the best left-backs in the league, both in defence and attack. And whilst right-backs are ten a penny, left-backs are still very much a rarer find, though in Jamal Lewis, Ainsley Maitland Niles and Ryan Sessegnon, there are a few options available to Team GB.
MF – Stuart Dallas (Over-age)
For the second of my ‘Over-age’ players, I’ve gone with Stuart Dallas, who has been transformed under Marcelo Bielsa’s stewardship at Leeds into a box-to-box midfielder and has done a stellar job there. His versatility would allow him to fit seamlessly into any side and with experience playing for Northern Ireland some 56 times, he has the caps to make him a valuable asset amongst the younger contingent. And as backup for Dallas, his Leeds team-mate Kalvin Phillips would be a shoo-in.
MF – Billy Gilmour
When Billy Gilmour made his first Premier League start in March last year aged 18, it seemed as if Chelsea had unearthed a gem. But could he do it on the global stage? When he made his first appearance in a senior international competition, starting against England in last month’s Euros, he answered that question with an emphatic yes, putting in a ‘Star of the Match’ performance. At the age of 20, it’s exciting to see what Gilmour has to offer in the next few years, but maybe he could have entered the 2021/22 season as an Olympic Gold medallist. We’ll never know now, but it surely won’t be the last triumph in his career.
MF – Declan Rice
After two breakthrough seasons, Declan Rice has come to the fore as one of the shining lights of England’s new generation of players. His performances in the Premier League saw him become an integral part of the Three Lions starting XI in the Euros, where he cemented his place in the team with his energy, quality and passion. If there’s anyone who sums up the Olympic spirit, it’s surely Declan Rice and who wouldn’t love to see his celebrations if he won gold. With Dallas, Gilmour and Rice in a three-man midfield, there are a few contenders who miss out, but Hamza Choudhury, Morgan Gibbs-White, Ethan Ampadu, Harvey Barnes, Matt Longstaff, Sean Longstaff and Mason Mount would be waiting in the wings.
FW – Bukayo Saka
It’s hard to believe that Bukayo Saka is still only 19, so not only would he qualify for Tokyo this year, but he’d also make the cut for Paris 2024! If his career to date is anything to go by, by then Saka will be a huge name in football. He has already impressed domestically for Arsenal and his appearances at Euro 2020 only reinforced his pedigree, emphasising not only his skill and potency but also a maturity beyond his years. And there is no better team player who Team GB could want in their squad. I’d already have him pencilled in as captain for Paris.
FW – Harry Kane (Over-age)
For me, one of the Over-age spots has to be reserved for one of the best players in world football and when that player is a superstar striker, all the better for Team GB. Goalscoring is the name of the game and whilst Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tammy Abraham have proved themselves to be able understudies and Tyler Roberts and Eddie Nketiah continue to make impressive strides, Harry Kane still provides that cutting edge for the time being. And, tactically, deploying Kane against some lesser experienced defenders and goalkeepers would surely pay dividends.
FW – Emile Smith Rowe
Team GB would be blessed with an embarrassment of riches in terms of attacking options, with Nathan Tella, Eberechi Eze, Ademola Lookman, Dan James and Callum Hudson Odoi all impressing in the Premier League. Whilst Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are already star names. However, Emile Smith Rowe has proved himself to be a shrewd and mature player in the last twelve months, settling into the Premier League like a duck to water, and just yesterday being rewarded by Arsenal with a long-term contract and the number 10 shirt, previously worn by the likes of Paul Merson, Dennis Bergkamp, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil, and Smith Rowe has elements of them all his game. A future England star in the making and someone who could pull the strings for Team GB.