Why do England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have separate football teams?

UK football teams play against each other separately because the sport grew beyond the British Isles while they were playing. The only time this isn't true is when they go to the Olympics like Great Britain.

Why do England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have separate football teams?
What's the deal with the different football teams for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland? Photo by Emily Wang / Unsplash

The four countries that make up the United Kingdom—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—each have their football teams. This is because football spread beyond the British Isles before England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland even existed.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) respected the separation because the teams were older than FIFA and had their traditions and identities. Since then, they have played in their international championships, just like other sports that started in Britain, like cricket or rugby, but not the Olympics.

The United Kingdom is a country made up of countries

The reason why the United Kingdom has four different football teams is that it is made up of four different countries. In 1707, the first Act of Union made it official that England, which had included Wales since 1536, and Scotland were now one country called the Kingdom of Great Britain. This country had a single parliament and shared institutions. Nearly a century later, in 1800, the Act of Union got rid of Ireland's political institutions and merged the island into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

After the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, only Northern Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we know it today was officially formed in 1922. This was many years after the British Home Championship, which was the first international football team championship, was started.

The birthplace of football

Modern football started in the UK, but there are other examples from other times and places. There are records of similar games and activities in China in the third century BC, Japan in the seventh century, colonial America, calcium in Florence during the Renaissance, and football in England in the middle ages. In the middle of the 19th century in England, modern football grew out of this game and how it was played in public schools. In 1863, several schools and clubs came together to form the Football Association, which made the rules of the game consistent.

The first national teams were from England and Scotland. On November 30, 1872, in Glasgow, they played their first international game. In 1876, the Welsh national team was formed, and in 1882, the Irish team did the same. In the British Home Championship of 1883-1884, the four UK national teams played each other for the first time. This tournament was also the first to have a set of rules that everyone followed. These rules were written down in 1886 and adopted by FIFA after it was founded in 1904.

Separate national teams: FIFA and the British exception

At the end of the 19th century, football was already popular in other European and American countries thanks to the British. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association was set up in 1904 by Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland. As the organization in charge of football around the world, FIFA is in charge of the different continental confederations and national federations. It also puts together both the men's and women's World Cups. Because of their history and culture, FIFA used to let the British teams keep playing on their own. Northern Ireland joined in 1911, Wales and Scotland in 1910, and England in 1905. In 1921, the Republic of Ireland joined.

Since then, the four British teams have played separately in international football tournaments, except for the Olympic Games. According to the rules of the International Olympic Committee, only member countries can participate. In this case, it is the United Kingdom, which competes with "Great Britain". European football teams have qualified since 1992 through the European Under-21 Championship, where the British teams compete separately. Scotland qualified for the 1992 and 1996 Games and England for the 2008 Games but did not participate as they could not compete alone. Absent since 1960, the UK returned to Olympic football as hosts in London 2012, and the women's team repeated at Tokyo 2020.

By Mencía Montoya Barreiros, Source: El Orden Mundial