Saturday, June 15, 2002

Just following up on what Instapundit , Tapped , and this somewhat difficult to name blog have to say about Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa etc having their own 'international' soccer teams, and trying to carry the argument to Washington DC. I realise the argument isn't entirely serious but some more serious thoughts on the subject.

Sporting contests between national teams came into being a little over 100 years ago. International matches in soccer were played in 1872, international cricket was first played in 1877, international matches in rugby in 1871, the olympic games in 1896. At the time the world consisted of far fewer units than it does today, and a lot of this cosisted of large amorphous empires. Sports that were played in multiple countries were generally spread around by these empires in the first place, and so the first international matches tended to be matches between the component units of these empires anyway. Therefore, when international sport first started out, teams between 'countries' without independent sovereignty were more the rule than the exception. (The first international match in soccer was between England and Scotland, in cricket between England and Australia, and in rugby again between England and Scotland). The rule seemed to be that if there was some sort of local identity, then there could be a local team. Colonies having separate teams from their imperial masters became accepted and normal, and although these colonies later mostly became independent countries in their own right, this tradition survived. Thus the Dutch Antilles, the Faroe Islands, and various other territories (and for that matter Hong Kong) still have their own independent soccer teams. The point however is that truly international sporting contests grew out of these inter-colonial type events. And while America was never an imperial power in quite the same way were the British or the Dutch, the Puerto Ricans, the American Samoans and the like have some sort of local identity, and since they do, having local teams fits in quite well with this tradition. And while there is no way Catalonia would be allowed to have a 'national' soccer team today without becoming a genuinely independent country, Scotland and Wales do by tradition and it doesn't bother anyone much.

Sometimes, the sporting teams can actually survive the changing in national boundaries. In my favourite sport of cricket, there is a 'national team' called the West Indies, which is a combined team of players from the former British colonies of the Carribean (plus Guyana in South America). These nations are so small that they would have difficulty fielding strong teams individually, but together they can, so they do. When they started doing so, they were all parts of the British Empire, but now they are not. Attempts to set up a federation of former British colonies in the West Indies failed, but they still kept the cricket team. (The West Indian team was awesomely strong from about 1980-1995, but is now, rather sadly, a shadow of its former self, although it still has one or two great players). Australia has had a national cricket team since 1877, but 'Australia' did not exist in any political sense until 1901. Probably the main reason that they got together on the cricket field was that if they did they had a better change of beating England. They did so, and they enjoyed it so much that some people believe that the success of the cricket team was a factor that hastened the political union that occurred in 1901. On the other hand, sometimes the sporting teams do not outlast the political changes. The pre-partition Indian cricket team included players from what later became Pakistan: the post partition team most assuredly did not.

It seems that for a place that is not fully independent to maintain its national sporting teams, it needs some sort of history of being separate from the larger country, some sort of local identity, and some sort of special political status within the larger country, and some sort of desire to have a local team. The key issue may be that sport isn't actually very important, and if it gives a little place that isn't really a country pleasure to have a soccer team, then why not? You do have to draw the line somewhere, but it doesn't hurt if it is in a few places a little anachronistic.

In any event, deciding who is a country for any other purpose, such as UN membership, always ends up a little anachronistic anyway. (The Ukraine and Belarus has their own UN seats for the entire history of the Soviet Union. As to why Texas and Louisiana didn't in this case demand them as well, I have no idea).

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