“Countries” and the UK: who do we think we are?

Location of Northern Ireland in the UK and Eur...
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I was of course thrilled, as an Ulsterman, at Rory McIlroy‘s first major title win last night. Brilliant for what many Northern Ireland football fans call “Our Wee Country”. I’m always amused and intrigued by the semantic fog we disseminate, though, when we refer to parts of the UK as “countries”. It is common usage and therefore can’t be incorrect as such – but I do wonder how it must sound to non-British ears.

To most people around the world, their country in the context of international sport is an uncomplicated thing – it’s their actual country, a nation state, with international borders, an army, a seat in the UN and that kind of thing. I can only think they must be baffled when they hear a Welshman, an Ulsterman or a Scot talking about playing for their country and then realise they are playing for what in any other nation would be called their region – or some other word which is a different from the word they use for the whole nation. And God knows what they make of an Ulsterman talking about playing rugby, hockey or cricket for Ireland – an entity made up of one independent country and one province of another country combined. In Ireland, we get to play for a “country” that not only isn’t a nation state but hasn’t even been a country in the intra-British Isles sense since 1921. Curiouser and curiouser.

In football, the UK operates as four separate “countries”. Every other international team in the world is a nation state team. We have this for historical reasons: the first “international” football fixture in the 19th Century was England v Scotland. International football’s genesis was in matches between parts of the United Kingdom.

It’s easy to forget now that we’re all crap how central Britain was to the start of organised football, especially in the years before FIFA organised and British, more specifically English, pre-eminence in the game until after World War 2. England did not lose to a non-British team at home until 1954. So British football was able to negotiate separate nation status within FIFA for its four associations, the FA, SFA, WFA and IFA. We got in early and so have been able to keep this arrangement. Catalunya doesn’t get an international team; nor Bavaria; nor Bohemia. We are incredibly lucky to have this and we have to acknowledge we have it on the basis of history, not fairness.

As a Northern Ireland supporter, long may it continue, as long as the rest of the world doesn’t mind. What bothers me though is the home FAs’ unwillingness to take part in a pan-British national team for 2012 Olympics: BBC News: London 2012 British football team. They are apparently worried they will lose their international status if they take part in it. This despite crystal clear statements from FIFA that they won’t lose any such status and that FIFA indeed encourages them to take part in the British Olympic team.

This is a case of football administrators being both blinkered and self-important; and it’s not just them, many British football supporters have this same mentality. But if you see Britain objectively, in global terms, this kind of in-fighting within one small country like ours seems myopic and petty-minded. Imagine Spain not managing a team if they were hosting the Olympics. Who do we think we are?

The Olympics will be hugely entertaining and there will be massive interest in the football. Not to have a UK team representing the host nation would be bizarre in the extreme, especially as we used to enter a British team and indeed have won gold. But it’s also a mark of continued British failure to see ourselves as others see us – a middling Western European democracy and not a titan bestriding the world.

Happily, it seems there will be a team of some sort – as a last resort it could be an English-only team. But how sad it would be if there were no Scots, Northern Irish or Welsh in the squad. We need to get over ourselves: if we are four “countries” (in a sense of the word that is all our own), we have also chosen to be a single country (in the sense of the word the rest of the world understands). This isn’t to play down our strong identities in Ulster (at least two of them there), Scotland and Wales, just to put them in a bit of perspective.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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