We're by far the greatest team the world has ever seen...
Paul Brown, FourFourTwo, October 2004
It's official (well, unofficial): Scotland are the best team in the history of football. But not the current champs - that's Angola. Welcome to the Unofficial Football World Championships.
It’s a story particularly familiar to all Scottish football fans: In April 1967, 30,000 members of the Tartan Army travelled to Wembley to see their side take on World Cup holders England. Famously, thanks to a legendary performance from Jim Baxter and goals from Denis Law, Bobby Lennox and Jim McCalliog, Scotland won 3-2. Scottish fans danced across the pitch, and dug up fistfuls of Wembley turf to take back across the border as souvenirs of the win. But this was much more than a victory over the old enemy. Scotland had defeated the world champions and, Scottish football fans reasoned, taken their crown. In 1967, Scotland were the unofficial champions of the world Fans of other nationalities unsurprisingly dismissed the Scottish fans’ claim as idle terrace banter. And then someone checked the statistics. After a trawl through hundreds of international results spanning the entire breadth of footballing history, the truth was finally revealed. Not only were Scotland the 1967 unofficial champions, but they were also, according to the statistics, the best team in the world… ever.
Consider if World Cups, continental championships, FIFA rankings and the like had never been invented. Consider if football's world championship was decided like boxing’s world championship. Consider if every match involving the world champion was a title match, with the championship title being retained or passed on depending upon the result. This is the philosophy behind the Unofficial Football World Championships, or UFWC, the only international football competition that nobody has heard of.
It all began 132 years ago, with the very first international football match. That was played between Scotland and England in Glasgow on 30 November 1872. The winner of the match could safely claim to be the best international football team in the world – in the absence of any other challengers. Unfortunately, the score was a rather unexciting 0-0, so neither team were in a position to claim anything. But, on 8 March 1873 at Kennington Oval, England and Scotland played again. And this time there was a victor. England won 4-2, with goals from the oddly named Kenyon-Slaney (two), Bonsor and Chenery. England were the best international football team in the world, and so became the very first unofficial world champions.
In the following year, 1874, Scotland beat England 2-1. This meant the UFWC title passed to the Scots, who carried the title as holders into their next match, and so on. Identifying the current UFWC champions required tracing this long lineage of title matches from 1872 right up to date. Among the first to undertake this mammoth task was Pete Tomlin from Letchworth, Herts. “It took an awful lot of work,” he says, “but, as a self-confessed anorak, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Pete and other dedicated UFWC statisticians were initially prompted into action by discussions about football’s unofficial champions on radio phone-ins and in newspapers. After no little argument, their research was eventually combined to produce a definitive set of UFWC stats. The end result was surprising, but in the early years the UFWC, like football in general, was dominated by the home nations.
England regained the UFWC title in 1879, Scotland retook it in 1880, and the title bounced back and forward between the two until the beginning of the 20th century. Then Ireland and Wales got involved. In 1903, Ireland beat Scotland 2-0 to take the title, and it was passed between England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales for the next 25 years. Northern Ireland won the UFWC for the first time in 1927, and the home nations continued to scrap it out until European and world tournaments meant sides from all around the globe began to play each other.
The first World Cup tournament did not take place until some 58 years after the first international football match had been played. And then-reigning UFWC champs England were not invited to attend. The 1930 World Cup was won by hosts Uruguay, who became the first official world champions. But Uruguay had never played nor beaten England. So England remained unofficial world champions - until they were beaten in the following year by Scotland.
Then, in May 1931, Scotland lost 5-0 away to Austria, and the UFWC title left the British Isles for the very first time. But it didn’t stay on the continent for long. England brought the title back in the following year, and the home nations retained the title until 1939. Then England lost to Yugoslavia, and the title was subsequently passed between Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Germany, and Sweden, before England took it back in 1947. But football was now a world game. In 1950, England were famously beaten 1-0 by the United States. The UFWC title headed to the Americas for the very first time, where the baton was subsequently passed between newly-powerful footballing nations like Brazil and Argentina.
To date, 42 nations from all around the world have held the UFWC title, including most major European and South American teams. Of the current top 20 FIFA-ranked sides, only Turkey and Cameroon have never held the title. Unlikely nations who have held the title include Israel, who beat Russia 4-1 in February 2000, and the Dutch Antilles islands – located off the coast of Venezuela – who beat Mexico 2-1 back in March 1963.
After losing the title in 1950, England’s long-awaited chance to grab it back came on 30 July 1966. The title-holders were West Germany, and, for the first time in footballing history, two teams contested both the World Cup and the Unofficial Football World Championships. Geoff Hurst’s legendary 120th-minute hat-trick strike saw England win the World Cup and, some say more importantly, the UFWC. Scotland famously deprived England of the title in 1967, but held it for less than a month before the Soviet Union intervened.
The UFWC title was again contested alongside the World Cup in 1974, 1978, 1986, 1994 and 1998. In 2000, the European Championships saw the title pass between four teams within 12 days. During that tournament, England again faced UFWC title-holders Germany. The Germans had knocked England out of the 1974 and 1990 World Cups and out of Euro 96, but England had taken the UFWC title from Germany in 1966 and 1975. On this occasion, Alan Shearer headed the only goal of the game. Unfortunately, as is the case with a title that exists only on paper, there was no trophy for the England skipper to hold aloft. In any case, celebrations would have been short-lived. England surrendered the title to Romania three days later in a 3-2 defeat.
Italy beat Romania, then France beat Italy, and then Spain beat France and held the title for exactly a year through to March 2002. Then the Netherlands beat Spain, meaning the UFWC title was not contested at the 2002 World Cup Finals, as the Dutch failed to qualify. They did manage to retain the title for a full 18 months, before losing to the Czech Republic in the qualifying stages of Euro 2004. The Czechs then looked to be taking the title to Portugal, until they lost a friendly match to the Republic of Ireland in March of this year. The Irish held off Poland and Romania, but then lost the title to Nigeria in May. The UFWC title went to an African nation for the first time in its history.
Currently, the unofficial world champions are… Angola. Yes, lowly Angola, listed 78th in the FIFA world rankings at the time of going to press, and perhaps better known for civil warfare than for footballing prowess. But Angola are champions on merit – they took the title in June when they beat Nigeria 1-0 in a World Cup Qualifier.
While some will say the very notion of lowly Angola being crowned champions devalues the entire competition, others will celebrate the excitement of a tournament that allows an underdog to nip in and steal the title. Shock results occur in boxing title fights, so why should football’s version be any different? And official football tournaments are not exactly immune to upsets, as Greece proved at Euro 2004.
Even bigger shocks may yet be in store for the UFWC. Minnows Angola play veritable tadpoles Rwanda on 4 September as the qualifying stages for World Cup 2006 continue. Should Angola hold off that challenge, Zimbabwe and Algeria are up next. Previous holders Nigeria seem best equipped to deprive Angola of the title, but the two sides don’t play each other again until next June…
In the meantime, Angola remain unofficial champions – even if you fudge the rules. UFWC statistician Stefan Georg from Bonn, Germany, used the 1930 World Cup Finals as the starting point for his research, but the outcome was the same. “Although I started from a different point, Angola still come out as champions,” he says. “This might raise a few eyebrows, more so than if the Netherlands or the Czech Republic were still champions, but I still think this is a great way of calculating the real world champions.”
The UFWC also operates an all-time ranking system, in which sides are awarded one point for every title match victory. Scotland top the rankings table, 13 points ahead of second-placed England. Both nations are so highly ranked because of their dominance of international football in the years that preceded the first World Cup. (Indeed, Scotland have not held the title since their victory over England in 1967.) Detractors say this isn’t fair, as other nations weren’t around to challenge for the title in football’s formative years. But, as Dale Winton said, you’ve got to be in it to win it. So Scotland top the rankings on merit.
“What a piss-take!” complains Englishman D. Plant on the UFWC website. “It’s obvious that the UFWC came about thanks to a disgruntled Scot clinging to a set of statistics and an anorak!”
In fact, none of the UFWC originators are Scottish. UFWC Statto Daniel Tunnard is an English teacher living in Argentina. He began the project while twiddling his thumbs during the school holidays. “I thought it might be a bit of fun,” he says, “but it did take ages.” As for the rankings, he says, “I'm happy that Scotland are the best team ever, as long as England stay above Argentina!”
The Unofficial Football World Championships remains very much, well, unofficial, but it does now have some sort of organisation via the website www.ufwc.co.uk. But what does the future hold for the tournament that claims to be the home of international football’s real champions? Sepp Blatter has long been touting a new international tournament to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Continental Championships, and the UFWC has the welcome bonus of not requiring any additional matches to be played, which would no doubt find favour with club managers across the world.
So what do FIFA think of the Unofficial Football World Championships? “As long as people have fun with football and that it is played in the spirit of respect for all involved, the non-violation of the Laws of the Game and the ethics of sport, FIFA is more than happy!” reads a statement from the FIFA Media Department. “We wish the UFWC fans a lot of fun!”
And FIFA-sanctioned fun is what it is all about. The UFWC isn’t going to usurp FIFA or supplant the World Cup any time soon, but there is a good amount of enjoyment to be had in watching an apparently meaningless international friendly match with the knowledge that the victor will become the latest title holder in an illustrious lineage that stretches back 132 years. And anything that can make meaningless international friendlies fun should be grasped with both hands.
All that remains now is for some budding statistician with far too much time on his hands to work on a club version of the UFWC. “Now you’re talking,” says Daniel Tunnard. “But what would be the starting point? And who has a list of every club match ever played?” Consider the gauntlet thrown down, and let the arguments begin.
that's a lot of reading to convince me that scotland has the best soccer team in the world
Paulie, I think he has had to much fresh air or something. He thinks the Rangers FC are the best team in Scotland and they are not, the Celtic FC are. Now he thinks that Scotland is the best team in the world? That's almost as funny as the Rangers being better then the Celtic FC.