Beach football at Stone Town, Zanzibar.

by Joe Hill

Or: how a small change to FIFA regulations could make a big difference to the world’s footballing minnows…

The swanky restaurants, posh hotels and exclusive escort agencies of Budapest will be looking forward to bumper receipts next month, as the 2012 iteration of FIFA’s annual congress hits the Hungarian capital (think Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, only with funnier accents). In between bowls of goulash and goblets of Tokay the international footballing nabobs will be genuflecting before the twin gods of Transparency and Governance, with further sops to progress such as the planned elevation of a woman to the hallowed ground of the Executive Committee.

However, of somewhat greater interest to the refined taste of Cutter readers is an item lower down on the agenda: a seemingly-innocuous statutory amendment permitting automatic eligibility for FIFA membership to any national Football association that has already achieved membership of its regional confederation. This cuts out the current lengthy application process that can leave newly independent nations waiting years for full footballing recognition.

One suspects (probably correctly) that this is an expedient measure to permit swift accession for the new state of South Sudan, who in February attained full membership of CAF (the Confederation of African Football, Africa’s equivalent to UEFA) but without this rule change would have had to wait until at least 2014 before being able to join FIFA – to give Sepp & co. their due, they really do care about the development of the game in Africa. However, this little tweak of the rules may bring about a whole series of unintended consequences.

What’s Swahili for ‘statutory eligibility’?

To illustrate these, let’s leave Budapest for the exotic shores of Zanzibar. Legally a province of Tanzania, the Zanzibar archipelago has a very distinct character and history from its continental overseer, its whitewashed backstreets retaining a singular Swahili identity despite years of pass-the-parcel sovereignty between Persians, Arabs, Portuguese, Brits and Germans over the centuries. As a result, the islands have been granted a number of degrees of self-rule short of actual statehood.

And, as associate members of CAF, they can compete in regional tournaments such the Africa Cup of Nations and the East African CECAFA Cup. However, their longed for FIFA-membership has always been kiboshed by the Tanzanian FA, no doubt wary of granting further breakaway-impetus to their wantaway subjects.

But, as you’ll have gathered by now, this new rule could allow the Zanzibaris to bypass the Tanzanian veto and gain full FIFA nationhood, permitting participation in World Cup qualifying and official friendly games, plus – handily – access to the various pots of money (see here and here) that FIFA sets aside for developing nations. Not to mention the twin satisfactions of seeing their nation represented on the football pitch and tweaking Tanzanian nostril hairs.

So much for Zanzibar – what are the wider ramifications? Well, effectively we’d have a more diverse international scene in Africa, Oceania and, particularly, the Concacaf region (covering North and Central America and the Caribbean), where quasi-nations with limited statehood abound. World Cup qualifying formats would change or expand to take into account the new participants. For the more cynical, it would also couple a few extra cars onto the FIFA gravy train; the one-vote-per-nation system already artificially inflating the importance of footballing chiefs in such piddling wee countries as the Cayman Islands.

The Guadeloupe exception

And critics may also ask: what’s the use of clogging up international calendars with improbable micro-nations represented on the pitch by clod-hopping posties and bank clerks? Well, surely if a nation is truly felt by its inhabitants to be a place of unique and independent character then it has a right to compete, regardless of its physical size or population? After all, few would begrudge South Sudan the right to celebrate their hard-won sovereignty on a sporting platform, even though mere qualification for a major tournament is, at this stage, a very distant prospect.

In any case, these underdog nations have the capacity for surprising success. Take Guadeloupe, for example. This Caribbean island is technically an overseas Departement of France, but nonetheless competes in Concacaf’s regional competitions. And they’ve recently fared quite well: in 2007 they got all the way to the semis of the Gold Cup, the confederation’s premier tournament, beating Canada and Honduras (who, don’t forget, made it to the 2010 World Cup) along the way, before being knocked out by Mexico by a single goal – so why not let them have a tilt at World Cup qualification?

Closer to home

From a European point of view there would be no immediate changes, though the FA of Gibraltar will be monitoring the situation with some interest: they are still lobbying heavily for membership of UEFA (inevitably facing strong opposition from Spain, who say they will boycott any competition in which Gibraltar take part). The nascent (or, indeed, putative) FAs of breakaway nations such as Kosovo, Abkhazia and Transdniestria may also take heart, even if their claims to self-sovereignty are on even shakier ground than the Gibraltarians.

Greenland, a less controversial candidate (the Faroe Islands, which also belong to Denmark but share similar sub-state-status with the Greenlanders, are UEFA fixtures) will also welcome the amendment, giving rise to pleasing thoughts of igloos for goalposts and polar bears nonchalantly strolling onto the pitch mid-game.

And, to bring it even closer to home, it would make the (already, frankly, illusory) threat of a FIFA diktat merging the four UK home nations into one team even less likely; as long as UEFA recognise England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, FIFA would be compelled by their own laws to do the same – so perhaps we can finally put that old chestnut to bed (and maybe even convince certain messrs G. Bale and A. Ramsey to turn out for the GB Olympic squad).

But one thing is becoming clear: as of May 22nd 2012, the world of football is set to become a bigger, more exotic place – and this Cutter wholeheartedly approves.