Why a football TeamGB is a threat to the independence of the ‘home nations’

To have an official national football team, a country has to be a member of FIFA, football’s world governing body. Membership of FIFA is not permanent. A vote by three-quarters of members can expel any FIFA member.

Article 10.1 of the FIFA statutes states:

Any Association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in its country may become a Member of FIFA. In this context, the expression “country” shall refer to an independent state recognised by the international community.

England, Scotland , Northern Ireland and Wales do not meet this criteria but do have their special position as seperate members enshrined in their own article (10.5).

FIFA also recignizes that nationhood may not be straightforward and article 10.6 states ‘An Association in a region which has not yet gained independence may, with the authorisation of the Association in the country on which it is dependent, also apply for admission to FIFA.’  Note the ‘yet’, an assumption that independence will come.

Thus the position is that the British associations having separate membership is an acknowledged contradiction to FIFA’s membership rules but one that is explicitly protected in its own statutes.

So, do the 2012 Olympics threaten that? It can’t be pretended that the Olympics are nothing to do with FIFA.  Olympic matches are regarded by FIFA as official internationals (because this means it can charge a financial levy). Can the UK say it is four nations in one FIFA competition but one in another? Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has said yes. He has repeated his belief that Olympic participation does not undermine the UK position. But Blatter is also a man prone to change his mind, something evident by his conversion to goal-line technology after a long entrenched hostility.

Moreover, in 2008 Blatter said:

If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team. If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency? This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the Congress in 1946.

Blatter is 76 years old and will not be around forever. His successor will probably want to make big changes at FIFA, to lessen the taint of scandal and corruption that hangs over its highest levels.

FIFA is also a democracy. A president may offer guidance but ultimately it’s down to what individual members think. As Blatter himself has said in a different context: ‘FIFA must not be reduced to the smallest common denominator: its President … FIFA is ultimately nothing but the expression of the will of its more than 208 Member Associations’.

The fiasco of the recent England World Cup bid illustrates that British football is not exactly held in wide regard amongst those members. Admiring the Premier League is one thing. Understanding why the British get special treatment is another.

BBC Wales have recently pointed to the trend being for more countries in FIFA not less, while Stuart Pearce has claimed that no one is calling for the return of a single Yugoslavian team. That last argument is silly because Yugoslavia no longer exists, but the UK does. The trend for more FIFA members has been because the number of independent nations has grown in the last 30 years. Of course, if Scotland votes for independence then the whole parameters of this issue will change. But the key issue is not the politics of statehood but of football.

There is historical evidence that the UK’s special position has been questioned before. For example:

  • In 1972 the Uruguay FA withdrew a proposal to end the home nations’ independence after the 4 UK associations agreed to pay FIFA a levy from the home championship (as all other nations have to from their internationals). That year the Secretary of the SFA noted ‘there was no doubt that the South American Confederation wished to remove the independence of the Four British Associations’.
  • In 1992 British delegates at the International Football Association Board were told by FIFA delegates that if they voted against the introduction of the backpass rule it would jeopardise their separate status. The FAW’s sense that its position was under threat was already so strong that it created the League of Wales in 1992 to ensure it could not just be seen as a region of English football.

The FAW were particularly shocked at the threats that surrounded the backpass rule because they had always believed they had European support for their position. Four British nations after all cemented the European domination of the world game but the break up of the old Communist bloc significantly increased the number of European members. Suddenly, Europe had less need of British votes at FIFA.

The European domination of world football is clear in the places allocated for the 2010 World Cup:

Number of countries seeking qualification Number of places allocated
Europe 53 13
Africa 53 6
Asia 43 4
Central & N America 35 3
Oceania 11 1
South America 10 5

Morever, Africa only got 6 places instead of its normal 5 because South Africa qualified automatically as hosts.

The executive of FIFA appears to think this is not an issue in which democracy should prevail. Blatter said in 2011: ‘All of the Fifa member countries have equal voting rights, but when it comes to the World Cup, which is the only income of Fifa, our executive committee agrees that those confederations that have the best football should have more representatives.’

Television money and sponsor reasons aside, the key moral argument in support of the status quo is that this is about the quality of football and FIFA rankings do support the notion that the bulk of the best teams are in Europe. But it is difficult for the rest of the world to accept European domination for reasons of  ‘quality’. There is more than a whiff of an old-fashioned western sense of superiority here, a sense that the rest of the world resents. Even in Australasia there is resentment that their continent isn’t even guaranteed at least one place.

It’s within this context of resentment about the nature of power within FIFA that the British nations’ special position can come under the spotlight. This is likely because the British privileges extend beyond just having four members.

The FIFA executive is made up of a president, 8 vice presidents and 15 members. Of these vice presidents Britain gets one, Europe gets another two and the rest of the world get five between them. The distribution of members is also skewed towards Europe.

The only justification for the UK having the same number of vice presidents as the whole of Africa is history. When football was reorganized after the Second World War, FIFA was desperate to bring in the UK nations, the inventors of the game, to legitimize its own position and buttress the organization’s financial future. The cost was giving the British a disproportionate influence.

That extends beyond the FIFA executive. The International Football Association Board is the body that sets the actual rules of the game of football. There are eight votes on this board: FIFA have 4 and the UK associations have one each. In other words, the British associations have as much say in the rules of football as the rest of the world put together.

A stranglehold on the game’s rules and a permanent vice-presidency on an executive that does not distribute the spoils of football’s centrepiece fairly mean that the British position is of interest to the rest of the world. It has a direct impact on the governance of world football and a symbolic importance. Paul Darby, a historian of African football, has noted:

The individual membership of each of the British associations, which affords them full voting rights at FIFA Congress, has been a particular source of discontent with the African football confederation. Indeed, on many occasions the membership status of the British authorities has been heavily criticised as evidence of global inequality within world football and has been cited as constituting just one manifestation of European bias and privilege within the game’s institutional and administrative structures.

Just because there isn’t currently a campaign to get rid of the UK’s four teams does not mean there won’t be in the future. And when it happens, people will point to the precedent of the 2012 Olympics.  If TeamGB competes again, as some pundits, players and the manager hope, the danger of the issue coming back will be all the greater.

There is little sentiment for tradition and history in football and it is only tradition and history that allows the four UK nations to have their own national teams.  Moreover, as long as the British nations have a disproportionate say in the power of world football then there will be those that resent the fact that the UK has four teams.

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Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

6 thoughts on “Why a football TeamGB is a threat to the independence of the ‘home nations’”

  1. Thanks for this article, too little has been said about this especially in the Welsh media which is sleep walking towards, or worse cheerleading, the demise of the FAW and the Welsh national football team.
    In fairness I can understand why the FAW has perhaps played down its role on the International Board and the threat posed by TeamGB, but you wouldn’t expect them to want to give that up.
    There is also an important sporting principle at stake here that its unlikely many countries governing bodies would tolerate combined teams picking and choosing competitions to enter. Imagine if Scandinavian teams decided to enter the World Cup as one team – but concentrate on the European Championships as individual nations.

  2. It probably won’t effect the Scots that much because in 2 years time they will be an Independent Country free from the UK anyway.

  3. Perhaps the biggest threat to the survival of a Welsh national team is Scottish independence. For that would remove any threat to the Scotland team and the worry of a Scottish backlash to a UK team; the Ulster Protestants would be told to accept an all-Ireland team (as in rugby) or even support Scotland; leaving Wales isolated and vulnerable.

    And despite the protestations of the FAW and fans, the crocodile tears of politicians and media, the merger with England would be inevitable. Because it would – post Scottish independence – be politically desirable. Which exposes the hypocrisy (or stupidity) of many involved in this debate, in their refusal to admit the political and constitutional dimension to this ‘sporting’ debate.

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