England managed a 1-1 draw with the United States at the World Cup on Saturday. Having another talented player like Ryan Giggs of Wales or Darren Fletcher of Scotland might have made the difference in the match. Why does the United Kingdom field a team for each of its constituent “provinces” while other nations are limited to a single team?
Because the British invented international soccer. England and Scotland played the first game between two national soccer teams in Glasgow in 1872 in front of 4,000 spectators. Twelve years later, the national soccer associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland launched the British Home Championship tournament, which was contested almost every year for the next century. Meanwhile, FIFA, the governing body responsible for the World Cup, didn’t come along until 1904. By that point, the United Kingdom’s four independent national soccer associations were deemed too powerful to be combined. (Germany and Austria argued otherwise at the time.)
There isn’t really a consistent definition of what constitutes a country in international soccer. In order to be World Cup-eligible, a country must gain entry into both FIFA and its regional soccer association. The Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA, represents Europe, while the United States belongs to the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Associations of Football, or CONCACAF. Membership requirements differ among the regions, but any team that makes it into FIFA receives an annual stipend of $250,000.
UEFA tends to be most careful about whom it admits, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1990, the Europeans accepted the Faroe Islands, a Danish autonomous region with a population of less than 50,000—about the size of a large American school district. Inspired by the tiny Faroes, Gibraltar applied for membership. The Spanish delegation balked. Spain worried that a national team for the British-owned territory and its 29,000 inhabitants would undermine their claim to the rock. They also feared that each of their own 17 autonomous regions would try to break away from the national team. The Spaniards would lose some of their best players if Catalonia were to declare footballing independence.
Bowing to Spanish pressure, UEFA passed a rule limiting new membership to U.N.-recognized countries. Despite the decision of the international Court of Arbitration for Sport that UEFA can’t apply its law retroactively to Gibraltar’s application, the disputed promontory failed to overcome Spain’s intense lobbying effort. In a 2007 vote, only the English, Scottish, and Welsh supported the application of U.K.-administered Gibraltar. UEFA’s strict rules have also prevented the membership of Kosovo, which is still caught in independence limbo. (CONCACAF applies no U.N. membership requirement. The U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and other territories and protectorates field their own teams.)
Gibraltar isn’t alone in its frustrating quest to join FIFA. In 2006, four teams contested the inaugural Viva World Cup, a sort of protest tournament for jilted “national” soccer teams. In the end, the Sapmi team from Northern Europe’s Lapland region defeated Monaco by a score of 21-1. The tournament has grown in size and respect since then, with 16 teams battling for the 2010 championship. Padania, a Northern Italian team, has won the title three years running. Kurdistan is another unrecognized powerhouse.
Bonus Explainer: What happens in the Olympics—do the British combine their teams? Not anymore. The International Olympic Committee recognizes the United Kingdom as a single country with the right to send one team to the games. In the old days, the Brits would field a single squad. (They won the gold in 1908 and 1912.) In mid-century, however, the governing bodies of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland became concerned that they were losing their soccer independence through a shared Olympic team and withdrew. The United Kingdom has not participated in Olympic soccer in more than 30 years. An effort to resolve the dispute for the 2012 London games achieved only a partial success: There will be a U.K. team, but only Englishmen will take the field.
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Explainer thanks Steve Menary, author of Outcasts!: The Lands that FIFA Forgot. Thanks also to reader Ken Wagner for asking the question.