England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales make up the sovereign nation known officially as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, in several sports, especially the ones most popular in that territory, these countries compete as independent entities, and Northern Ireland often combines with the indepdendent republic Ireland for the official Ireland team in most of these sports.
rugby union: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (includes Northern Ireland)
rugby league: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (includes Northern Ireland)
cricket: England (includes Wales), Scotland, Ireland (includes Northern Ireland)
soccer: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland
Rugby union, rugby league and cricket have relatively few competitive national teams that it’s crucial for the British Isles regions to form separate teams to make up the numbers. However, football/soccer has an absolute wealth of competitive national teams. Although the regions have always been independent in soccer there is a growing notion that the idea might be outdated. One of the biggest complaints against the setup is this: if Wales, which is simply a region of the UK that actually has LESS autonomy from the UK than Iowa does from the USA or as Sardinia has from Italy, get its own national team? Based on this precedent there are many other regions within nations that would love to have their own national team. Perhaps the most famous is the rich Catalonia/Catalunya region of Spain, home to famous clubs FC Barcelona and Espanyol. This region, which has special semi-autonomy within Spain, organizes an annual national team game against top opposition.
This brings us to the Olympics, which only allows sovereign nations to enter teams (with exceptions for unincorporated territories like Puerto Rico or semi-disputed areas like Northern Ireland, whose athletes may choose to compete for either the UK or Ireland). Based on a desire to retain completely autonomous, the British regions haven’t sent a soccer team to the Olympics in decades. However, the next Olympics is being held in London, and there is massive pressure to enter a British team in the tournament. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are vehemently against the idea, claiming it will set a precedent. FIFA has admitted that the independent nature of the British ‘nations’ may be in jeopardy either way.
My objective opinion is that it’s simply unfair for these regions to have their own national teams when other world regions cannot. It’s impractical to move in that direction – imagine the chaos if all of the world’s disputed regions announced they were independent in football matters. On the other hand, regions like Scotland and Wales have real national pride, separate from all-encompassing British side. I think a good compromise would be to create a Great Britain team to compete in the Olympics, World Cup and European Championship but to also revive the Home Nations tournament contested between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I would hold the tournament in the summer in odd years. Surely many England stars would choose to sit out but the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish teams would be chomping at the bit. It would be cool to see a similar series in Spain between Castilia, Catalunya, Galicia and the Basques, as well. I can only dream.