The Uruguay national football team has undoubtedly had a rough year. After a promising start to qualifying for the next World Cup, a run of negative results put the team’s chances in jeopardy. Uruguay ultimately advanced to a two-game playoff against Jordan for a spot in Brazil in 2014. Their 5th place finish in CONMEBOL qualification derived from a paltry 2-1-5 away record, including a 4-1 loss to lowly Bolivia, and an additional 3 home draws to weaker opposition such as Paraguay and Venezuela. Finishing below a talented Colombia team and a young upstart Chile was somewhat disappointing, but losing the last automatic qualification spot to Ecuador was shocking after Uruguay finished in 4th place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Despite their unfortunate year, Uruguay recently received a small piece of good news. On the last day of qualification, Uruguay sealed their playoff with Jordan with a 3-2 victory over a weakened Argentina team that had already clinched their World Cup spot. With that victory, however, Uruguay also earned one of the greatest honors an international side can hope to achieve: the title of Unofficial Football World Champions.
The Unofficial Football World Championships are best described as football’s version of a title belt from wrestling or boxing: a champion holds the belt, someone challenges them to a fight, and if this challenger beats the holder, they get the belt. The competition was the brainchild of Paul Brown, who in 2003 defined the competition’s rules and outlined the lineage of the title. The name was inspired by the first loss England suffered after their 1966 World Cup finals victory, to Scotland, in which Scotland were jokingly proclaimed the “unofficial world champions”. The championship, however begun all the way back in 1873, when Scotland became the first champions after defeating England in the second international match of all time (the first was a draw between the two sides). Since then, the title has moved around the world according to whichever team could beat the current holder.
The title has no meaning in today’s world (hence “Unofficial”) and has only a virtual trophy to offer to the current holders. FIFA does not sanction the tournament, and there’s no other form of official backing either. But what the competition does have is a winding, complex history. One would expect the title to be constantly interchanged between the best teams in the world, but because the title can be transferred in friendlies, then almost all teams potentially have access to becoming champion. In fact, the title has traveled to all corners of the globe, from superpowers in Europe and South America to minnows in Asia and Africa.
Nothing epitomizes the journey of the UFWC title quite like its history from 2010-2012. The Netherlands came into the the 2010 World Cup as Unofficial World Champions, after the holders in 2002 and 2006 had not even qualified for the World Cups in those respective years. Netherlands almost became the official World Champions in conjunction with the UFWC title before relinquishing both in their overtime loss to Spain. The voyage of the UFWC over the next two years was absolutely stunning. The title was contested in a World Cup final, a match estimated to have been watched by 3 billion people worldwide, and won by possibly the greatest international team of all time. Two years later, however, it was possessed by the 124th-ranked national team in the world in North Korea. Argentina had beaten Spain in a friendly in 2011, and then Argentina had lost to Japan, and finally Japan lost to North Korea in 2012. Additionally, for the first time in the long history of the competition, Asian teams were able to hold the title for a significant amount of time. North Korea embarked on a successful run in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, and defended their title against challenges from unlikely teams such as Turkmenistan, Philippines, Tajikistan, Palestine, and India, before finally losing the title to Sweden.
The Uruguay national team is probably not thrilled with their performances this year, after almost failing to qualify for the World Cup, and claiming the UFWC title won’t provide much consolation. But what the UFWC does provide is an entertaining competition open to all the international teams in the world. The competition has traversed the globe for 140 years, with over 800 official matches played. The title itself has passed between over 40 different countries, from international giants such as Brazil, England, and Argentina, and minnows like Wales, Netherlands Antilles, Zimbabwe, North and South Korea, and even the United States for 13 days. Paul Brown has since written a book about the competition, and maintains a website tracking the holder’s upcoming title defenses as well as preserving the history of all UFWC matches. There’s even a ranking of all international sides, based on their all-time number of successful title defenses.
I advise anyone interested in reading more about the topic of this trivial, yet fascinating competition at their official website found here: http://www.ufwc.co.uk/