With the referendum on Scottish independence one week away I thought it might be interesting to talk about what, if anything, it means for football. Football has long been one of the most important manifestations of national identity so in some ways it is surprising not to have seen more written on the subject.
Many people outside of the UK struggle to understand why a single nation- the United Kingdom – should have four national football teams- England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, in the very early days of the English FA Cup the Scottish club Queen’s Park participated in the English competition. The Football Association, the first governing body (1863) of the sport which regulates the game in England deliberately did not call itself “English” in order to make the game more appealing to Scots.
Nonetheless, Charles Alcock, the first Secretary of the FA and a man who was responsible for many innovations in sport, recognized the value of international rivalry and encouraged the first international game, played between England and Scotland in 1872. This was a time of revival in Scots national identity – the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was established in 1853 and the post of Secretary of State for Scotland – to advance the interests of Scotland in the British parliament – was created in 1885.
The Scots decided to form their own Football Association- the world’s second – in 1873. Until around the beginning of the 20th century almost all the “international” games were played among the British teams- and importantly Scotland usually beat England, since when the prevailing view has tended to be that the money is in England but the talent comes from Scotland- a tradition nowadays more associated with managers rather than players.
The British had on-off relationship with FIFA which was founded in 1904, and did finally opt in for good until 1947, which was marked by friendly game between Great Britain and “The Rest of Europe” played at Hampden in Scotland to a crowd of 135,000. The proceeds were used to shore up the finances of FIFA, and the agreement with the British Associations not only guaranteed their continuation as for member nations but also guaranteed four of the eight seats on the International Football Association Board (IFAB) which makes the rules of the game- effectively giving the British a veto on rule changes.
Many Associations question whether the UK should continue to have four members, and the refusal of the Scottish FA to participate in the Great Britain team at the 2012 London Olympics was motivated by the fear that, despite FIFA’s promises to the contrary, participation would be deemed as a step toward creating a permanent team UK. I reckon FIFA could swing the vote next Thursday simply by announcing that forthwith the UK would have one team, so that independence would be the only way to preserve the Scottish national team.
As it is, a vote for independence would change things. The logic of the IFAB structure would be compromised and FIFA might argue that only two seats should henceforth be reserved for Associations from the UK- one for residual UK and the other for Scotland. There might also be pressure to turn residual UK into a single team- which would of course be a great fillip to Welsh nationalism.
There has long been talk of Celtic and Rangers moving south of the border to play in Premier League. This was always stymied by the threat that the Scottish FA might lose its privileges, and presumably independence would make the prospect even more remote.
The consequences of rejecting independence might also be interesting. Again, given that many outside the UK resent the four national teams, an affirmation of British unity but be taken as a reason to force the UK to field a single team. This would be mischievous, since everyone knows how passionate the Scots are about their team, but then there is plenty of mischief in FIFA- it might even be revenge for the British media’s hounding of FIFA on corruption. If it were to happen, expect another referendum very soon with a solid independence majority.