The Unofficial World Cup
Tonight, as Italy take on Costa Rica in their World Cup match, the title of Unofficial Football World Champions will be up for grabs with Costa Rica as defending champions. It’s unlikely, however, that any of the players will know quite what is at stake.
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 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.
Costa Rica’s recent group win over Uruguay saw them take the title, after the South Americans had been defending it well since taking the title off Argentina last October. It’s now possible, that Costa Rica may win or draw and then face England next, thus giving England a chance to win back the title that they relinquished in 1975 after losing to Czechoslovakia in a European Championships qualifier.
It’s almost certain that none of the players will know about. But at least they won’t be too gutted when they fail to win.
Tonight though, for the football fans that follow the UFWC it will be an exciting opportunity to potentially see another title defence of the non-existent trophy.