The United Kingdom Divided: One nation, Four teams

By Nicholas Donadio, David Stringer and Kevin Rhine

The United Kingdom is home to the 4 oldest FA federations England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. They are:

The Football Association (England): 1863

The Scottish Football Association: 1873

The Football Association of Wales: 1876

The Irish Football Association: 1880

In 2012 the UK fielded a soccer team in the London Olympics. While most of the team was comprised of English soccer players, with a few Welsh ones, (the reasons will be discussed later) it was the first time in decades that a soccer team had played under the banner of the UK. Normally in the soccer world the UK plays as the 4 separate countries of the UK: Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. This is relatively unique for the UK, only splitting into the 4 countries when playing in international soccer, international rugby (although Ireland plays as a unified country) and the Commonwealth games. In 2012, due to reasons that will be discussed later, almost the entire team was English however but there were a few Welsh players.  With 3 parts of the UK, England Wales and Northern Ireland, competing in the upcoming Euro Cup (the later 2 making their debuts) we decided to look at why does the UK play as 4 separate teams? Why split into 4 when they are all part of the same country?

The answer is simple, it has been so historically and will remain so for the foreseeable future. England claims to have been the country that invented modern soccer and made the first rules of the sport. Subsequently the first football association ever created was the English one, followed by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The very first soccer international match was played between England and Scotland. This makes the 4 associations the oldest in the world. As a result all 4 associations have a permanent seat on the rules committee that determines the rules of the sport. seeing as there are only 8 total seats and only these 4 are permanent it gives the associations a large deal of power within the sport. Power that they have accumulated due to age.

It is that level of power that has enabled the 4 parts of the UK to play as 4 separate teams since the creation of FIFA to varying degrees of success. Despite their ages they only have one World Cup title between them (England 1966) and only England has shown any consistency at the international level. Only once has all 4 parts competed in the same international competition, the 1958 World Cup.

The 1958 World Cup saw all four parts of the UK play, although Wales nearly missed out on qualifying (to date it is their only World Cup appearance). All were drawn into different groups. With only 16 teams at the time this meant that each group had one of the 4 in it. Despite having all 4 teams only two, Wales and Northern Ireland, managed to advance. Both came second in their respective groups however they drew in points (3), Northern Ireland with Czechoslovakia and Wales with Hungary. At the time goal difference wasn’t used as a deciding factor, if it had both would have been eliminated, so a playoff game was held to break the tie, which both Northern Ireland and Wales won. England tied for 2nd in their group with the Soviet Union (they were also tied on goal difference) however England lost its playoff. Scotland managed 1 point in its group and came last thus being eliminated. Despite making it to the quarterfinals both Wales and Northern Ireland lost their matches to Brazil and France respectively. Outside of 1958 at least three of the four parts of the UK have competed in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups (England, Scotland and Northern Ireland both times) and the 2016 Euro Cup.

Part of this inconsistency may be due to the FIFA rules governing which nation you can play for which include eligibility based on not just the player’s place of birth but also of parental or grand-parental birth location. This can be found in the FIFA Regulations Governing the Application of Statutes, VII. Article 16. In a country the size of the UK this means that many players who were born in Scotland, Wales or Norther Ireland may have ties to England. This means that England could take the best out of the other parts for herself due to the prestige that England has over the others, while on the flip side those players not good enough for England try and play for one of the other parts. However there is an element of national pride that can be seen when players who have the ability and eligibility to play for England choosing one of the other parts instead. Examples include Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale who where both born in Wales but could have played for England, however both opted to play for their home nation.

It was the four associations within one nation that caused problems in 2012 for the Olympics. The IOC does not recognize each part of the UK but rather the UK as a whole, whereas FIFA and UEFA recognize each part. The various soccer associations in the UK do not get along and have a historic habit of refusing to unify under one banner for the Olympics. Because of this the UK did not field an Olympic soccer team for decades. However as the hosts of the 2012 Olympics the UK was allowed a team without having to qualify. This lead to debate within the UK and between the associations about whether or not to allow their players to play on a unified team. Ultimately only members of the Football Association were allowed to play for the UK because the other three refused to take part, citing fear of losing their status as countries within FIFA. However despite this several Welsh players expressed interest to play for the UK due to the fact that they were both Welsh and British (and probably wanted to play at the Olympics). The FAW allowed Welsh players to compete with the UK team  should the individual desire it and be selected but refused to actively be part of a unified team. This lead to a few Welsh players being selected for the squad most notably the aged Ryan Giggs who was named captain of the UK team.


European Cup Guides

England – Nicholas Donadio

Wales by David Stringer

Northern Ireland – Kevin Rhine


Works cited:

“About the IFA” The IFA., 2016

“The History of the Football Association of Wales” Football Association of Wales., 2016

“About th eScottish FA” Scottish FA., 2016

“The History of the FA” The FA., 2016

“1958 FIFA World Cup Groups” FIFA., 2016

1958 FIFA World Cup Matches” FIFA., 2016

“1986 FIFA World Cup Teams” FIFA., 2016

“1982 FIFA World Cup Teams” FIFA., 2016

Palmer, Brian (2010), “Why Does the United Kingdom Get To Have Four National Soccer Teams”, Slate,

BBC (2012), “Olympics Football: Wales’ Neil Taylor reveals Team GB call-up” BBC Sport,

FIFA Regulations Governing the Application of Statutes, VII. Eligibility to play for representative teams, Article 16 Nationality entitling players to represent more than one association,

How to cite this page:

“The United Kingdom: One nation, Four teams” by Nicholas Donadio, David Stringer and Kevin Rhine (2016), European Cup 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog,…ation-four-teams/ ‎(accessed on (date))