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Gavin HamiltonThe re-built Wembley Stadium, which formed the centrepiece of England’s doomed 2018 World Cup bid, will be the central venue for the 2012 Olympics football tournament.

Wembley will host the Final of the 16-team competition, as well as one of the semi-finals, a quarter-final and three group games.

Although the wider Games is centred on London and the new Olympic stadium in the east of the city, the football tournament will not be a capital-centric event, with matches being staged in Cardiff (Millennium Stadium), Glasgow (Hampden Park), Manchester (Old Trafford), Newcastle (St James’ Park) and Coventry (City of Coventry Stadium).

The fact that the tournament is being taken around the country is another example of how football has always had an uneasy, slightly detached relationship with the Olympics.

Indeed, football has had a long and chequered history with the Games that dates back to before the World Cup. The Olympics, in fact, was a major factor in the first World Cup being launched in Uruguay in 1930.

Different interpretations over the use of amateur players led to post-war dominance of the competition by Eastern Bloc countries, but rule changes in the 1980s have created the competition that we have arrived at today: an under-23 tournament, with squads allowed to field three over-age players.

It is an unusual hybrid of a competition, but FIFA finds itself in a compromised position as it wants to have football in the Olympics and enjoy the benefits of IOC membership. At the same time, it does not want the Olympics to become a rival to the World Cup.

In March this year, FIFA ruled that all players under 23 must be released by their clubs for the tournament. However for over-age players, the decision is only voluntary.

Lionel Messi famously insisted that Barcelona release him to take part in Argentina’s successful defence of their title in 2008. This time around there will most likely be clashes with leading European clubs, many of whom will be in the middle of lucrative pre-season tours of Asia and North America when the Olympics begin.

Special privileges
Another source of tension is the very existence of the Great Britain team. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations have been reluctant to throw their weight behind the GB team because of concerns that such a stance would endanger the special privileges enjoyed as individual “home nations” within FIFA.

Currently, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy individual votes on the game’s decision-making body, the IFAB, and a vice-presidency of FIFA which is rotated around the four countries (and is currently held by Northern Ireland’s Jim Boyce).

The Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales and the Irish Football Association have consistently opposed plans for a men’s British team, but all have said that Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish players who choose to take part will not face punishment or risk exclusion from their national squads. However, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan has warned that players who do accept a call from GB manager Stuart Pearce may face a backlash from fans.

FIFA has been quick to reassure the home nations that a GB team will not affect future relations.

“It’s very clear,” said FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “If they play, there is no sanction from FIFA.”

Of more concern to Olympic organisers will be the lack of action on the ticket front. A month before the tournament kicked off, 1.2million tickets were unsold, with women’s matches proving particularly hard to shift.

Tournament schedule
Thursday, July 26
Group A

United Arab Emirates v Uruguay (17.00, Manchester)
Great Britain v Senegal (19.45, Manchester)

Group B
Mexico v South Korea (14.30, Newcastle)
Gabon v Switzerland (17.15, Newcastle)

Group C
Belarus v New Zealand (19.45, Coventry)
Brazil v Egypt (19.45, Cardiff)

Group D
Spain v Japan (12.00, Glasgow)
Honduras v Morocco (14.45, Glasgow)

Sunday, July 29
Group A

Senegal v Uruguay (17.00, London)
Great Britain v United Arab Emirates (19.45, London)

Group B
Mexico v Gabon (14.30, Coventry)
South Korea v Switzerland (17.15, Coventry)

Group C
Brazil v Belarus (12.00, Manchester)
Egypt v New Zealand (14.45, Manchester)

Group D
Spain v Honduras (17.00, Newcastle)
Japan v Morocco (19.45, Newcastle)

Wednesday, August 1
Group A

Senegal v United Arab Emirates (19.45, Coventry)
Great Britain v Uruguay (19.45, Cardiff)

Group B
Mexico v Switzerland (17.00, Cardiff)
South Korea v Gabon (17.00, London)

Group C
Brazil v New Zealand (14.30, Newcastle)
Egypt v Belarus (14.30, Glasgow)

Group D
Japan v Honduras (17.00, Coventry)
Spain v Morocco (17.00, Manchester)

Saturday, August 4
Quarter-final (12.00, Manchester)
Quarter-final (14.30, London)
Quarter-final (17.00, Newcastle)
Quarter-final (19.30, Cardiff)

Tuesday, August 7
Semi-final (17.00, London)
Semi-final (19.45, Manchester)

Friday, August 10
Third place play-off (19.45, Cardiff)

Saturday, August 11
Final (15.00, London)

* all times British Summer Time

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