Noisy neighbours: Nationalism and sport in the UK

Despite Andy Murray’s support for Scottish independence, he led the Great Britain team to victory in the Davis Cup final in Belgium in 2015, the first time they had made it to the decider since 1978 when the squad featured Buster Mottram, whose own nationalism was of a slightly different hue.

Most of the time, tennis players need not worry about who they are representing. Individual sport is contested for personal gain and glory, and perhaps one’s sponsors. But in the Davis Cup players are split into national teams, and for Murray and his brother Jamie that means GB, not Scotland.

If they were playing football or rugby (either code), cricket, darts or chess, then the Murrays would have a Scotland team to play for, and would be able to compete against England. But in tennis – as in basketball, ice hockey and pitch and putt – the home nations combine to field one British side. (With hockey, curling and athletics, among others, it depends: Great Britain for the Olympics, separate at other times.)

No other state of any significant size splits itself into its constituent parts for international sport – although some autonomous regions, such as the Faroe Islands, Hong Kong and the US Virgin Islands, do compete independently of their mother countries. Why this is so can mostly be explained by considering the origins of the sports in which England and chums play separately: they are the sports the British invented.

The first football international was between England and Scotland in 1872 and soon thereafter Wales and Ireland joined in. The idea of competing against countries beyond the United Kingdom didn’t really occur to the British, however. The first independent nations to play each other were Argentina and Uruguay, in 1902. Two years later, when the associations of France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland formed the world-governing body FIFA, the UK snubbed the new organisation, despite Statute 4 of its constitution: ‘Matches to be played according to the “Laws of the Game of the Football Association Ltd.”‘

But in 1905 England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales did join, albeit reluctantly, and FIFA soon handed the presidency to one Daniel Burley Woolfall, who ensured the ‘English model’ of football prevailed. He set in stone too the independent existence of the four British associations. (Interestingly, Austria and Hungary, then similarly bound together by a shared Empire, also entered FIFA separately.)

The British FAs spent much of the inter-war years out of FIFA in protest at the admission of former Central Powers (who, of course, were now genuinely separate nations), and then over the definition of amateurism. As a result, they stayed away from the first three World Cups, in the 1930s, and only returned to the fold after the Second World War, providing a timely financial bailout to the international body. British football has since retained its historic status as a case apart, preserving the separate memberships of the four home nations despite occasional efforts to force them to unite.

Of no small significance in all this is that football is by far Britain’s most popular sport. The people’s game has provided a battleground for all kinds of sectarian and regional tribalisms – both on and off the pitch – and has long been associated with issues of national identity. Thus, the Scottish national team has been the focus for nationalism even when independence was otherwise a marginal concern – hence the SNP’s Jim Sillars dismissing his country-people as  ’90-minute patriots’ after losing his Glasgow Govan seat at the 1992 general election.

By contrast, until the 1990 World Cup, a spectator at an England match might have assumed, from looking at the crowd, that they were watching a British national team. The Union flag rather than the Cross of St George was flown, and was even displayed on the cover of the 1966 World Cup final programme.


That confusion still persists overseas. Ahead of the England v. USA game in the 2010 World Cup, the New York Post described the match as a ‘US-Brit battle’ with the word ‘war’ coloured in red, white and blue.

Since the mid 1990s, however, few Union flags have been seen at England games; St George’s Crosses are now in the ascendancy. Although, this might not suggest that England fans are ’90-minute patriots’ who could, like their Scottish counterparts, be transformed into supporters of a wider political nationalism.

In fact, while the flags were changing in the 1990s, so were England fans. The violence that was almost endemic when the national side played away in the 1980s is now pretty rare, partly down to improved policing, which has made it difficult for those that wish to cause trouble to travel. The result has been that supporting England is now a much less intimidating experience.

During the 2002 World Cup in Japan, Mick Dennis of the Daily Mirror listened ‘in wonder as England fans broke into a chant of “Nippon! Nippon!” – a spontaneous tribute to their ever-smiling, ever helpful hosts’, while the Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey speculated that ‘The revival of the English Cross of St. George might have something to do with devolution, the English taking a leaf from the book of patriotism as practised by an increasingly proud and defiant Celtic fringe. It might simply be a striking and memorable pattern or logo that, unlike the union flag, even an idiot can paint across their face’.

But even if football has been the proving ground for an English identity distinct from a British one – which may yet contribute to a new English body politic – the matter of united UK soccer teams for the Olympics reveals the deeply-felt split between the Celts and England. The withdrawal of a GB football team from the 1972 tournament was due to the FA abolishing ‘amateur’ status, but any hopes of a return since the Olympics itself ceased to be strictly non-professional in 1984 have been stymied by the reluctance among the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish FAs to set a precedent that could threaten their wider independence within FIFA.

An uneasy one-off compromise was reached for the 2012 games, where GB was able to enter football teams under the auspices of the FA (with some Scottish and Welsh players), but that is not the case for Rio 2016, where the England women’s side, despite deserving a place on the pitch, will not be able to represent the UK. (This is especially galling for followers of the female game as the Olympic soccer competition has far more prestige within women’s football than it enjoys among the sport’s male players.) ‘We want to maintain our position as an independent football nation, and we believe that playing in a tournament as Team GB could undermine our position long term,’ the FA of Wales stated, while Scottish FA CEO Stewart Regan explained, ‘There was never any plan to have a permanent British team, and we made that very clear, as did the Welsh and Northern Irish.’

In other sports, where any political pressure for the separate home associations to unite outside the Olympics is minimal, this is not so much of a problem. For example, in hockey, curling and now rugby sevens, the Olympic teams are selected jointly, but in all those sports there are relatively few competitive nations as it is, while outside the Olympics having England, Scotland and Wales competing separately adds a few more decent teams to the mix in the sports’ own tournaments.

As for the players themselves, attitudes are mixed.’I would rather lose as Scotland than win as Great Britain,’ said former Scotland football manager Craig Brown, and ex-Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall concurred: ‘What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well, it’s not my flag; my flag’s a Dragon.’

On the other hand Ryan Giggs defied the wishes of the FA of Wales to captain the GB soccer team at the 2012 Olympics, and Welsh and Scottish rugby players have never had a problem putting their differences with the English aside for the regular joint Lions tours.

Generally, though, supporters of the Celtic national teams treasure their separateness, even though Scotland fans have been regarded as tending towards the Unionist side of the (admittedly shrinking) sectarian divide in football north of the border, an issue that has more to do with attitudes to Ireland than England. ‘I would never support a Team GB,’ Hamish Husband, spokesman for the Association of Tartan Army Clubs, told the Scotsman when the 2012 Olympics was being discussed. ‘If there was a British team up against Brazil and the British team was made up of 11 Scots I would still support Brazil.’

Indeed, a visceral dislike of the England team has often been integral to supporting Scotland – even when the Scottish team were clearly superior to their southern counterparts, as was the case at the time of the notorious pitch invasion that followed the 1977 international at Wembley.

And there was not much fellow British feeling when Margaret Thatcher for some reason deigned to attend the 1988 Scottish Cup final. Then fans of both Celtic and Dundee United joined in a ‘red card’ NHS protest and booed the football-hating Prime Minister, who uniquely for a guest of honour was not paraded on the pitch to meet the players. This was a club occasion, but Scottish fans were asserting an independence from Britain that did not exist in the political sphere at the time.


Outside football, the stakes have tended to be lower. Not just because no other sport (apart from perhaps rugby union in Wales) carries the same popular resonance as football, but also because the teams are not endangering their separate status by occasionally uniting as Britain. There isn’t the same political pressure for the home nations to unite in sports where there are fewer member nations competing for influence on – and off – the pitch (the FIFA men’s world football rankings have 209 teams,  the hockey equivalent is 82).

Since the rise of Murray, Glasgow has tended to be the home of the British tennis team’s Davis Cup matches, and fans have had no problem waving UK flags. But then they are generally supporting individual Scots rather than the English-dominated line-up, and in any case there is no real known rivalry between England and Scotland in tennis, or perhaps in any team sport, to compare to that in football. (Okay, sometimes darts.)

Staying with Murray, most of the time he does not have to worry about which country he is representing – he isn’t, he is representing himself in an individual sport. But despite his pro-Independence vote (or at least Tweet), and despite claiming he supports ‘anyone but England’ in football, he has happily represented Britain in Davis Cups and Olympics and has had no problem displaying the Union Flag – but did get irate at Alex Salmond unveiling a Saltire in the Royal Box when he won Wimbledon.

Murray has clearly benefited from Britishness – or from the BBC and the unprecious national identity of England’s middle-class tennis fans, at least. Crucially, he managed to inherit the support for none-more-English Tim Henman at Wimbledon, despite the idea of a Scot winning the title once seeming so far-fetched it could be the basis for a Monty Python episode.

That sport reflects the often overlapping and unclear national identities within the UK is undeniable. But the beauty of sport is that it doesn’t matter. Comedian Andy Zaltzman has it right: ‘sport is so much better than reality’

If anyone wishes to delight in the success of the British curling team at the Olympics and yet gloat at the failure of the Scottish squad in non-Olympic events (even though they are the same human beings just wearing differently coloured shirts), who would deny them that weird pleasure? As for those English football fans who don’t care for the England team … well, let’s save that for when – or rather, if – the England men’s team ever win something again, as the British tennis team did last year.

Express 6-6-1977

The Daily Express on the aftermath of the England-Scotland match at Wembley in 1977.

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