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WORLD UNDER-21 CHAMPIONSHIP SHOULD BE THE PATH TO OLYMPIC GOLD

Henry Winter has enjoyed covering the “easy” Olympic Games but for the future participation of Team GB the format must be changed

IN EVERY sense the cheery goodbye by a policeman was unexpected as Henry Winter left the City of Coventry stadium after Great Britain’s women had been knocked out of the London 2012 Olympic Games football tournament by Canada.

It is unusual, to say the least, for a police officer to bid a football writer farewell after his copy has been filed and his work is finished, but especially while he is grappling with a member of the public.

“I was leaving the stadium when a policeman said ‘goodnight sir,’” said Winter, the football correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. “What made this even more remarkable was that the policeman was trying to restrain someone who was all the worse for wear.”

The Olympic spirit, in this reveller’s case perhaps vodka, has shown itself in many ways, not least how Winter and other FWA members have been able to speak to whoever they want to in the mixed zone, the area where players walk through from the dressing room.

While some are happy to cooperate with the media, believing it is part of the job win, lose or draw, for others it is a them-and-us scenario. There are those who stroll past waiting reporters wearing dustbin lid-size headphones. Having a mobile phone pressed to an ear and pretending to be in the middle of a conversation is another ploy used to not to speak to the press though this can backfire.

“One player came unstuck when someone who had his number phoned the mobile on which he was supposedly having a conversation and it rang while he was ‘talking,’” said Winter. An own-goal for the England striker more famous for not scoring.

While he is bracing himself for a more business-as-usual mixed zone as the new season gets under way, covering the Olympic football tournament hit the right notes for Winter. “It’s been easy from a press perspective,” he said. “Everyone spoke. There was not a single refusal. So different from the European Championship or World Cup.”

Winter praised the way women’s coach Hope Powell and the squad who, like the men, were knocked out at the quarter-final stage, conducted themselves. Their girls’ lack of media training was a bonus and Winter said: “They were so natural. They were delighted to be in the spotlight, or as they said on the front pages, middle pages and back pages. Their sport had a great platform and what I thought was tremendous was to see the players signing autographs for fans for almost an hour after the match [against Brazil] at Wembley.”

However, having enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame before huge, appreciative crowds, Winter warned that women’s football must “brace itself for a dip” when the Olympic attention fades.

Match days apart, media interest has lacked the mass coverage and cutting edge of senior international football. “I went to one press conference in Cardiff and there were only a handful of journalists there. It was almost like having a private chat with Craig Bellamy.”

Reporting Olympic football will never match the intensity of the World Cup or European Championship while for the participants, at the Olympic Games football is A sport, not THE sport. Team GB wanted the gold medal, but failure is not likely to disappoint the players as it would losing an international tournament or defeat in the Champions League.

Winter has enjoyed the less pressurised atmosphere of the multi-sport Olympics which is reflected in the number of families attending matches. However, he feels winning gold should be the pinnacle of the sport’s achievement “which it clearly isn’t with football or tennis.” I told Winter that golf was joining the Olympic family in Rio de Janeiro 2016. “Really?” he replied, immediately adding golf to football and tennis as sports where an Olympic gold will not be the ultimate prize. Treasured as a gold medal is, it would not compete with the satisfaction of a World Cup winners’ medal, a Grand Slam or a Major.

Men’s football is not new to the Olympics, but this was Team GB’s first appearance for half a century. The next time Team GB are seen at an Olympics will almost certainly be when London is chosen as host again. The European qualification programme is decided through the UEFA Under-21 Championship and while the four Home nations enter this, Great Britain cannot as they are not members of FIFA or UEFA.

Politics can be a powerful opponent and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are against the Team GB concept. At the moment Olympic football is effectively an Under-23 tournament with three overage players. Winter’s idea to get round the politics and age format is food for thought. “Why don’t FIFA organise a World Under-21 Championship? There isn’t one at present. FIFA and the IOC should allow the Home countries to enter separately if they qualify.”

For all the criticism of football at London 2012, the fans have embraced the tournament which is set to break the Beijing 2008 record of 2.1 million spectators. With the finals and bronze medal matches to come, the combined total for the men’s and women’s tournaments should reach 2.2 million.

As England manager Roy Hodgson prepares England’s 2016 World Cup qualifying programme which begins next month and more immediately the friendly against Italy on August 15, Winter believes four of the younger members of Team GB have done themselves a power of good, enough to become regulars in the senior squad: Tom Cleverley, Daniel Sturridge, Steven Caulker and Jack Butland.

He said: “Cleverley has been called up by England but has yet to play. He showed what he can do with Manchester United before his injury last season. Sturridge [who has two caps] did well at the Olympics as did and Caulker.”

It is Birmingham City goalkeeper Butland, 19, who particularly impresses Winter. Unable to dislodge Boaz Myhill or even win a place on the subs’ bench ahead of Colin Doyle, Butland played 12 games on loan with League Two’s Cheltenham Town last season, registering seven clean sheets. Butland has represented England at all levels up to the Under-21’s and was called into the Euro 2012 squad to replace the injured John Ruddy.

“Jack Butland is now England’s number two goalkeeper,” said Winter. “I speak to [England goalkeeping coaches] Ray Clemence and Dave Watson and they have been raving about Jack for some time. They know what they are talking about. He did well for England at the Under-20 World Championship in Colombia last year. Jack will be number two to Joe Hart.”

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