The international game is back in focus now that the European club season has come to a close. It’s a special time, as rival fans put aside their differences in united support of their national teams. And luckily, there is no shortage or lack of variety in international fixtures to distract us from the summer heat.
Up first are the all-important world championships. FIFA, not content to keep itself busy with just bribery, corruption and racism, has a full slate of tournaments this summer to keep us thinking about on-field matters instead of off. The world’s next generation of superstars will be on display in both the u-17 (Mexico, June 18 – July 10) and u-20 (Columbia, July 29 – August 18) World Cups. The lesser followed but equally entertaining Beach Soccer World Cup is being held in Ravenna, Italy, in early September. And who isn’t looking forward to the Women’s World Cup being held in Germany from June 26th to July 17th?!?!
There are also a number of regional competitions on the agenda, with four of the six regional confederations hosting major competitions during the summer. CONCACAF and CONMEBOL will each host their final round regional championships: the Gold Cup and Copa America respectfully. And UEFA’s European Championship and CAF’s African Cup of Nations will have qualifiers ongoing throughout the summer, as they attempt to whittle down to their final fields of sixteen.
And of course there will also be a full serving of the third type of international matches, friendlies, as teams prepare for their upcoming priorities. So what if they’re normally drab affairs that lack the passion of a competitve match and primarily used to test youngsters? There’s no shortage of matches to keep happy both neutral and major fan alike.
But if for some odd reason you can’t find any of those options enticing — after getting your head checked — you do actually have one more type of international fixture left to keep you entertained. Though with world championships, regional tournaments and friendlies off the table, what other type of international matches does that leave you?
The kind that don’t really involve “countries” at all.
Yes, there are actually national teams for places that aren’t actually countries. And no, I’m not talking about places like the U.S. Virgin Islands, who aren’t technically countries but do have true, FIFA-approved squads. (That said, the USVINT are currently ranked 200th in the world rankings and haven’t played a match since 2008… maybe they shouldn’t be a real national team).
Instead, these are the places that FIFA have turned their backs on. Despite this, these far-flung locales still feel the need to field squads to compete in friendlies and play in predominantly unheard-of competitions. They come from regions, principalities, islands, and even “non-defined areas” and play against squads hailing from other lands, real and not real. It’s for this reason that I like to call them the Sort-of Internationals.
So who are these teams?
The most famous of the Sort-of’s is the Catalonia national team. The spiritual home of tiki taka, the Catalonia region of Spain has long been a separatists dreamland. Entrenched in their own “national” identity, culture and language, the region has long sought sovereignty from the Madrid-based Spanish crown. The famous Blaugrana of Barcelona have long been a flag bearer for this movement, and this feeds into the social-undercurrent that intensifies the Barça’s Clásico rivalry with capital club Real. The passion for the independence movement and culture itself is also shared with Espanyol, the region’s other major football club.
But with all of the talent that sprouts from within the state’s borders, it’s unsurprising that a majority of the players “capped” by Catalonia come from Barcelona and Espanyol’s squads. Barça is famous for developing local talent into world class talent, and Espnayol’s has provided some of the strong local contingent too. With players like Xavi, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Pique, and Victor Valdés all having earned caps recently for the squad, you can easily fathom that they just might be a decent squad. (I also suspect that at least 79% of the reason why Spain won’t let Catalonia secede is that it would deprive the Spanish national team from a major contingent of the current world-dominating squad).
The star power doesn’t stop with the players either, as the squad is currently managed by Dutch legend Johann Cruyff. Such is the attraction of this Sort-of International squad that they have actually competed against “real” national teams such as Brazil, Nigeria, and even Argentina whom they beat 4-2 in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup.
Spain also partially houses another somewhat known “national team”, that of the Basque Country. Though not as well known as the Southern coast group from Catalonia, they also have capped a few illustrious players, including: Xabi Alonso, Fernando Llorente and Mikel Arteta. Many of the Basque players come from the region’s most prominent side, Athletic Bilbao. Bilbao’s unique cantera policy, which focuses entirely on both developing young players from the Basque region and recruiting top-level Basque players from other clubs, makes them the perfect feeder for the faux-national side.
The Euskadi XI, as the Basque Country side is known, not only plays publicized matches against Catalonia, but just like their most-frequent foe, they’ve also faced some prominent sides in friendlies. In fact, they’re currently on a three match winning streak against “real” national sides, which included wins over Estonia, Venezuela, and Serbia.
However, the quality tends to drop off pretty dramatically for the remaining 58 established sort-of international sides. But that’s not to say there aren’t some interesting “countries” to examine.
- The Guernsey national football team, the British-owned islands in the English Channel, is well known for producing Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier. Le Tissier did manage to make a number of appearances for the Green Lions, both before and after playing for the better known Three Lions. The fellow channel islands of Jersey and Alderney also sport their own national teams, and the three “nations” regularly compete for their own cup, the Muratti Vase.
- The Greenland national team, despite being a property of Denmark, appears on track to be elevanted to a FIFA-member status after the Sepp-asaurus approved their new field-turf pitch back in september of last year.
- The Northern Cyprus national team is composed of Turkish-aligned Cypriots. But don’t you dare confuse them with FIFA-approved Cyprus national team that is mainly composed of ancestral-Greek players… that could get you killed. Officials on the Island aren’t dumb though: in order to spare the Mediterranean island any additional racial tensions, the two sides have never met.
- The extravagant city of Monaco also has a national team, though they’re also easily confused with French Ligue 2 club side AS Monaco, which is composed entirely of players from outside of the principality. Like Greenland, Monaco have been eagerly been attempting to enter FIFA’s cool club for quite some time. Uniquely though, and unlike Greenland and many of the others on this list, the city state is actually a real country.
- The Sápmi national team is comprised of players from the extreme northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland. The most famous player ever to pull on the sápmi strip is Blackburn Rovers midfielder Morten Gamst Pedersen.
- Sort-of national teams exist outside of the Europe, too. Some notable teams include: Easter Island (disappointingly not a team full of giant stone heads), the Faulkland Islands at the tip of Southern Argentina (who rarely can get a game, due to the pure lack of visitors), and Zanzibar in Africa (who, oddly enough, used to be a “real” national team).
For those of you wanting to take in a bit of the action of the sort-of international variety, you’re in luck! This year, the 14th edition of the Island Games will feature a football tournament that pits 15 teams from non-FIFA approved nations. More information about the tournament, which runs June 26 – July 1 on the Isle of Wight, can be found here.
So if anyone tells you that there won’t be any quality football to watch this summer due to the lack of club matches, be sure to smack them and tell them to open their eyes a bit wider… or maybe use a magnifying glass.