As much as many people would simply admonish athletes to ‘shut up and play’, very often they simple aren’t allowed to because of the inherent politics of international sport. Sport itself is based partially upon the tenets of competition and conflict. Competing for your country often means that the entire country’s eyes are upon you; its residents living vicariously through your every action. Often, their entire world stops when the big moment arrives. Governments routinely use their sports teams as a symbol of their state’s ascendancy. Among the most infamous occurrences of this came at the 1936 Summer Olympics, where the ruling Nazi government intended to demonstrate ‘Aryan’ racial superiority. Countries even go to war over sports, such as the 1969 Football War between Honduras and El Salvador. In a more positive manner, countries often find a new sense of unity, and of pride in their homeland; witness the now-legendary example of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its effect on South Africa. The South African story is of special importance in this article, since for decades, denial of access to international sport was used against the apartheid regime in order to isolate it from the world and thereby deny its legitimacy; a stand against the unjust policies of legal segregation.
Acceptance in the international field of sport lends validation to the idea of a country/nation/state as a functioning, breathing, legitimate body. Gaining acceptance to an international sporting federation such as the International Association of Athletics Federations or the International Olympic Committee represents the establishment of a country as an entity unto itself and not just a part of some larger configuration. After the IAAF and IOC, the largest sporting federation in the world is FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football (that is to say, soccer). FIFA recognises 208 national football federations, most of which are either conventionally considered sovereign or as a dependent external territory (with the exception of the four ‘Home Nations’ of the United Kingdom, traditionally considered separate countries in most international sports and often by public reference).
Of course, there are places that do not have such recognitions accorded upon them.Enter the N.F.-Board (Nouvelle Fédération-Board), an organisation dedicated to giving unrecognised football federations a foothold in the international game. Whether they possess practical independence all but in name (such as Somaliland), possess a distinct ethnicity within the framework of another country or countries (such as the Sami), are independent or self-governing states deemed to have football infrastructure too undeveloped for admittance to FIFA (such as Greenland), or simply form a distinct region within a larger country (such as the Maltese island of Gozo), the NFB can serve as a springboard into the realm of global football.
Unfortunately (and if you clicked the above link, you already know this), but their website is, um, under construction, shall we say. Nevertheless, the NFB possesses 18 full members, 11 associate members and three associate members. While some of these members (displaced peoples, country subdivisions, distinct regions, traditionally independent jurisdictions) make sense, some of them seem a bit more esoteric (take, for example, the self-proclaimed ‘micronations’ of Saugeais and Sealand – evidently the only nation-state with its own PayPal account). Despite the dubiousness of these association members, the competition is much more serious; the NFB has held its own version of the World Cup four times, including this year’s tournament won by the team representing the proposed northern Italian breakaway state of Padania. The team, unsurprisingly, is promoted by the secessionist Lega Nord party. NFB organisers are indeed aware (and wary) of political partisanship and the need to keep things relatively light; as vice-president Luc Misson stated in this Wall Street Journal article, ‘The goal is ideological. It’s about about allowing peoples to exist through sport’.
I could go on, but anything else I could write about non-FIFA football would pale in comparison to this absolutely brilliant blog from the English sports journalist Steve Menary. Entitled Outcasts: The Lands That FIFA Forgot, it’s a rather comprehensive look at the exploits and struggles of various non-FIFA nations. The blog entries alone are quite absorbing, but I should remind you that there is also a book of the same title by Mr. Menary published two years ago which is quite good and even more in-depth; a perfect distillation of how geography, politics and sport are all related.
Allison, L. (ed.) (2005). The Global Politics of Sport: The role of global institutions in sport. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.
Carlin, J. (2007). How Nelson Mandela won the rugby World Cup. The Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2007. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/3634426/How-Nelson-Mandela-won-the-rugby-World-Cup.html. Accessed 4 August 2010.
Colchester, M. (2010). The World Cup For Everyone Else: Before the Big Event, Regions and Nations Not Recognized by FIFA Pick Their Own Champion. The Wall Street Journal Online, 2 June 2010. Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB10001424052748704875604575280640200054062.html#articleTabs%3Darticle. Accessed 4 August 2010.
Menary, S. (2008). Outcasts: The Lands That FIFA Forgot. Studley, Warks.: Know the Score Books.