Primus inter pares

In September, Scots will vote whether or not to separate the United Kingdom.  Currently, the full name of the largest sovereign state in Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth realm of 16 countries is: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Come October, it could be something like ‘The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not that place to the North’ with the secession of the nation of Scotland.  A sovereign state is, in the condensed version, a geographic location under the authority of a centralized government recognized by international law and treaties.   The UN recognizes 195 independent sovereign states.

The UK government has put a Robin Thicke-esque effort into preserving its union.  Just check out the video below. What’s next, Billy Bragg singing about the power of the union?  But, as lovely as the tear-jerker TV ad is, there is much work to be done on making all parts of the United Kingdom equal.  Other places like the NPR can break down the pros and cons of a new Scotland.  Right now, let’s talk about the not so “first among equals” of UK sports.

Ever noticed, in a Netherland is Holland kind of way that ‘Merkin announcers have,  the UK competes in the Olympics as Great Britain (an island on which there are three constituent countries of the UK: Scotland, England and Wales), and occasionally England, while graciously allowing the best athletes of Northern Ireland to be on the team as well?  That divide is even more obvious when it comes to the World Cup.  Each of the four nations/constituent countries in the United Kingdom can field a team for the international soccer tournament.  For instance, Northern Ireland, a country  a population only slightly larger that the Buffalo Niagara market (1.81 million people) qualified for the tournament in 2006. Just saying.

The easy answer to the “Why does each country in the UK get to compete” is: because they were the first countries to have an international tournament, when England played Scotland in 1872.  At the time, Europe was comprised of only 16 sovereign states. The longer version is: in 1904, when FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, came into being, each country of the UK had a unique soccer association and they were too powerful to be combined.  (And yes, at the point in time, it was still soccer in the UK.) This left FIFA in the position of trying to determine whether the cut off was a sovereign state, a constituent country like in the UK, or some other loose definition of “nation.” Of its four definitions for nation, Websters lists both:

1. a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own

4. an aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages.

To be world cup eligible, a team must gain admittance to FIFA and its regional governing body, which in Europe is UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations.  Being a sports body, UEFA didn’t spend much time defining words like country, nation, or realm, but accepting applications and their fees.  That is until the Faeroe Islands, a Danish autonomous region with a population equal to one quarter of Rochester, NY’s, was admitted to UEFA in 1990.  This lead to all sorts of regions applying, even Gibraltar.  Gibraltar, with its total population being just slightly more than half of that of the Faeroe Islands,  is a British overseas territory that lies in the Mediterranean off of Andalusia, Spain.  Spain had two concerns with this application – they had claims to Gibraltar and 17 autonomous regions that might then want to apply to compete.

UEFA established that only UN recognized countries could apply.  And by countries, they meant independent sovereign states.  Spain lobbied, only the countries of Great Britain supported Gibraltar, and the matter was settled in a 2007 court case without Gibraltar fielding a team.

So, First Among Equals?  With London hosting the Olympics in 2012, it wasn’t as if they could just elect to skip the soccer part of the games, despite the precedence of the last 50 years of non-competition.  A team was kitted out for the United Kingdom from across the kingdom, but only Englishmen were fielded.

That lack of representation alone seems like grounds for secession.







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