Wednesday 9 June 2021

This is not international football


I will do my very best to avoid watching any of the games that will take place in Euro 2021. I can see the point of taking part in sport for health reasons, but I have always struggled with the idea of watching it. As entertainment it is inferior to literature and art because sport is essentially transient. A novel from 1905 may still be interesting and important, but a football match from 1905 holds minimal interest even for those interested in football. Rarely do football fans rewatch matches from even the recent past, otherwise rather than paying for a continual Sky subscription you would merely record the matches from one season or one tournament and simply rewatch them. At most those interested in sport watch clips of previous events, which is the equivalent of reading the best part of a novel and ignoring the rest. No one would sit down and rewatch the whole of Euro 2016, because it would be boring and pointless. But if it is pointless to watch Euro 2016 now, there can have no particular point watching Euro 2021 for it too will be merely of transitory interest and apart from a few goals and the celebration of the winner will quickly be forgotten. I will not therefore dedicate my spare time to something that is of only transitory interest even to those who are supposedly interested. I will ignore.

But while I don’t like sport and in particular don’t like football, I am forced to accept that it is of great importance in the world. Millions will watch and it will be something vital to their lives. For this reason, I pay attention to the cultural phenomenon of football even while not understanding the rules nor taking part in the spectacle.

The most baffling aspect of Euro 2021 is that it is an international tournament involving places that do not have an international relationship to each other. If the EU is the process of becoming a federation, which can be the only interpretation of its goal of “ever closer union” why does it continue to have 27 separate football teams? The only teams that ought to be taking part are Turkey, Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine and North Macedonia, with only people from the European parts of Russia and a tiny corner of Turkey allowed to play. Clearly if you believe in the unity of the EU, and if you don’t what is the point of remaining, then the EU should have a single team as this would help develop the common identity so crucial for the EU project.

More confusing still is that while Germany had to give up its West German and East German teams when it achieved reunification in 1990, the United Kingdom has three teams in the tournament even though Wales united with England in 1284 and Scotland united in 1707. Italy reached unification in 1871, but it does not retain international football teams for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Lombardy etc.

Some people think that the United Kingdom is a sort of confederation of four nation states, each part being a sovereign state. But if that were the case then Scotland would already be independent, part of a loose relationship with the other parts of the UK rather like the Commonwealth. But if there were no sovereign state called the UK, just the four parts relating to each other, there would be no political union, no monetary union and more importantly no reason for tax payers in one part of the UK to send their taxes to any other. But if there were no fiscal union, there would be no monetary union either. You cannot expect British taxpayers to pay your furlough or bail out your business if you deny that there is any identity called British which unites us. We don’t expect fiscal transfers from Japan after all.

I understand fully the anomaly of the United Kingdom having four teams rather than one because football was invented in Britain and when “international” football began with a match between England and Scotland in 1872 there were no other teams to play. This anomaly extends to the International Football Association Board which determines the laws of Association football being made up of the four British associations plus Fifa. Northern Ireland has one vote but Brazil is just one of 191 members of Fifa.

The criterion for members of Fifa is being a sovereign state with wide diplomatic recognition. In 2016 Fifa defined a country as "an independent state recognized by the international community". But Scotland is not an independent state, precisely because we rejected the chance to become one in 2014. Having explicitly done so it would have been logical for the Scottish Football Association to have disbanded just as the West German one did. It’s no use those who lost complaining about this. It is like arguing that Scotland is both independent and not independent. Of course, the SNP like to treat Scotland as being something that it is not (independent), but you cannot logically campaign for independence if you already have it.

Jersey has self-government and judicial independence. It is not a part of the United Kingdom, which must mean that it has rather more autonomy and independence than Scotland, but it does not have an international football team recognised by Fifa because it was deemed to be not a sovereign country as defined by the UN. But if that is the case why does the United Kingdom still have four teams rather than one? After all you won’t find Scotland in a list of UN member states.

There are other anomalies around the world. Martinique in the Caribbean has an international football team though it is a region of France. Puerto Rico has a team though it is an unincorporated territory of the United States which voted for statehood in 2020, which makes it the equivalent of New Mexico territory prior to statehood in 1912. There may be a reason to bend the rules when a place is geographically distinct, but it is hard to see the sense when one island that forms one sovereign nation state has three teams in a so-called international tournament.

Just as the British Government has finally seen the sense of ceasing to refer to the United Kingdom as four nations, because this only helps the separatists, so it should do what Germany did in 1990. It should unite our football teams. If the EU is serious about unification, it should do the same. At least then Scottish nationalists would understand that independence in Europe is a senseless concept as it would make clear that the parts of the EU are mere regions.

Europe is itself a fake concept. We are part of Eurasia. There is no logical reason why the watershed of the Ural Mountains should divide a continent when the Himalayas don’t. “European” teams include Israel and Cyprus which are clearly not in Europe by the standard definition of Europe’s boundaries. Nor for that matter are Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan within those boundaries.

European football is neither European nor international. It contributes to the continuing division of both the EU and the UK, but enjoy it if you wish. I hope for a British team one day, which would have a better chance than trying to win by dividing our football forces four ways.

You will experience flag waving and nationalism, which Europe could do without. It might seem harmless fun and maybe you couldn’t bear to give up your separate teams. But there would be no SNP today if the first “international” match between England and Scotland in 1872 had never taken place.