The Unofficial World Cup

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A tournament where Scotland are the most successful team and the current holders are North Korea.

On February 17, the title of Unofficial Football World Champions is up for grabs. And the team that has a chance to win is from this very region. Kuwait will play current holders North Korea in Changsha, China. It will be the latter’s first defence of the title and, in true footballing tradition, we’re pretty sure they will be “doing it for Kim Jong” as they seek to hang on to the title they took from Japan last year — a title they won probably without even knowing they had done so. Should they win, Kuwait might also be oblivious to the significance of their victory.

The Unofficial Football World Championship is a little-known tournament with a 139-year history, although it only really came to the public’s attention in 1967. Scotland had just beaten the reigning World Cup holders, England, in a British Home Championship — England’s first defeat since winning the 1966 final — so the Scotland fans claimed that not only was this a great victory over the Auld Enemy, it also made them world champions… unofficially at least.

When the English had stopped laughing, someone retroactively traced the history of results, right back to the first international match to have a winner — England’s victory over Scotland in London on March 8, 1873. From this point onwards the title was passed onto to the victors, in a similar manner to boxing or pub pool where the winner stays on.

Given that football was not yet a global game, the title was mostly handed around the British Isles and Ireland until Yugoslavia took the title off England in 1939. And in a bizarre coincidence that lent some weight to the Scottish fans’ claim, it turned out that England were the unofficial champions before Scotland beat them in the 1967 match. So Scotland’s win really had made them unofficial World Champions. The English had taken the title off West Germany in the actual World Cup final at Wembley a year earlier.

In fact, the UFWC was contended in a surprisingly high number of finals as the title was passed around the world. Brazil took the title away from Sweden in the ’58 World Cup final, while Argentina took it off West Germany in the ’86 final in Mexico. And in the final of Euro 2000, France completed a historic treble of World Cup, European Championship and UFWC when they beat Italy in extra time. Spain also won it in the 2010 World Cup final.

However, it’s not just the big teams that have held the title. In 1963 the tiny Dutch Antilles (population 142,000) beat Mexico to win the only thing they’re ever likely to win. They were the lowest ranked nation to ever hold it, with current holders North Korea close behind. Australia, Israel, Ecuador and even Nazi Germany have all had the title and lost it, as it was passed on via matches big and small.

The title has been contested in almost 800 friendly and competitive matches with over 40 countries having won it. Scotland and England have won it more than anyone else due to the insular nature of international games in the early years. But ever since football became a global game, the UFWC has bounced around Africa, South America, Europe, at tournaments and in friendlies. The UFWC is not FIFA sanctioned (so it’s corruption and scandal free) and you don’t have to wait every four years for it to come around.

So this month in Changsha, China, two of the smaller nations in world football (ranked 99th and 110th) will slug it out for qualifying points for the 2014 World Cup, and will also carry on a tradition of a tournament that doesn’t officially take place. But for the football fans who follow the UFWC it will be an exciting opportunity to potentially see a new name on the non-existent trophy.

For Esquire Magazine, February 2012

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