Dear United Kingdom,
Let’s talk about the World Cup. England’s team is already back home from Brazil after being knocked out of the tournament in the group stage for the first time since 1958. The conversation about how to fix the squad, ongoing since the fading glory of 1966, is at full volume. There are calls to sack manager Roy Hodgson, to drop Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney in favor of younger players, and to adopt a three-man midfield.
Here’s another idea: Stop playing as England. Take the best players from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Play as the United Kingdom.
Who am I to say? I am a Yankee who calls football “soccer.” I have only a cursory knowledge of the mutual, intertwining, and distinct histories of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. I am dimly aware of Scotland’s independence vote coming in September, but I have seen Braveheart and In the Name of the Father. (I wasn’t around for this, this, this, or this.) I have zero standing, in other words, to tell the cradle of football how to run its business.
From the outside, however, this looks like a missed opportunity. Yes, the English Football Association (1863), the Scottish Football Association (1873), the Football Association of Wales (1876), and the Irish Football Association (1880) are all older than FIFA (1904) and the World Cup (1930). The rivalries between the countries are among the oldest and most passionate in sport. But Wales has not qualified for the World Cup since 1958, and Northern Ireland hasn’t made the tournament since 1986. Scotland has never advanced out of the group stage. And now England has slipped from world power to also-ran.
Useful players sat idle while England struggled in Brazil. Wales currently claims two of the best in the world in Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale. Ramsey should have been bringing his box-to-box energy to the stupefying heat in Manaus against Italy, not honeymooning in Venice. Bale should have been destroying Uruguay’s defenders with his pace, not filming an ad on a pier near Cardiff. They would have helped.
When I went to London two years ago to cover the Olympics, I expected to find locals grumbling about the inconvenience. What I found, almost to a person, was enthusiasm and pride for “Team GB.” That moniker leaves out Northern Ireland, whose athletes are welcome on the Olympic teams and should be on the World Cup team as well. Call it “Team UK,” if you prefer.
The Olympics should be the model. Invite the best players from all four countries and leave them as many options as possible. If a footballer from Scotland doesn’t want to represent the U.K., or one from Northern Ireland would rather play with the Republic, so be it. Five Welshman, you will recall, played with Team GB on the 2012 Olympic team. That partial integration took a lot of doing and a promise from FIFA not to disturb the status quo, but it worked. “We’re all proud to be Welsh, and we’re representing our own country as well as Great Britain,” Ramsey said of the experience. Keep going.
When I broached the idea of a unified team in an e-mail to the Scottish FA, Darryl Broadfoot, the head of communications, called it as “preposterous” as a joint U.S.-Canadian team. As long as we are making outlandish analogies, I would offer Texas: The state was briefly its own republic and keeps making noises about secession while still sending star forward Clint Dempsey to the U.S. national team. When he scored to put the U.S. ahead against Portugal last Sunday in Brazil, the cheers came from across the nation here. When Andy Murray, a Scot, won Wimbledon last year, he was celebrated as a national hero over there.
How exactly would this work? What would happen to the independent FAs and teams? Who would be in charge? I don’t know. Get the bosses in a room. Bring a picture of Murray in front of the Wimbledon crowd, of Mo Farah crossing the finish line of the 5,000-meter final in London, and of Gareth Bale’s extra-time goal from this year’s Champions League final. And figure it out. Maybe, come 2018, instead of England’s jet bridge walk of shame, there can be victory parades in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast.