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Russian media seize on indyref to bring FIFA's simmering issue to the boil

The matter of Scotland's place in international sport being placed under the microscope as a result of the forthcoming referendum was not as interesting as the source of yesterday's story on the subject.

End game: A No vote could mean the next generation of potential international footballers do not have a nation to represent.Picture: SNS
End game: A No vote could mean the next generation of potential international footballers do not have a nation to represent.Picture: SNS

A Russian news agency would not seem the most obvious of media outlets to be taking an interest in the minutiae of the consequences of next month's vote, yet that was where the latest claim emerged that FIFA are preparing to look once again at the status of the Home Unions should Scotland vote No.

It is an issue that has been simmering for years, particularly in the early part of this century. That four little football associations, representing one small country hold the power they do over the world's game, has long looked anachronistic within the wider FIFA community.

In particular, that FIFA representatives make up only half of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) which dictates the laws of the game, while the other half comprises representatives of the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is regarded as outrageous in many quarters.

The justification is historic, based upon those four - albeit there was no separate Northern Irish association at the time - having founded the IFAB in 1882, while the Home Unions effectively reinforced their position in 1947 by staging a fundraiser at Hampden Park between Great Britain and the Rest of the World to save a then grateful FIFA from bankruptcy.

However, with a voting system which effectively enshrines a British veto on the sport's rules in law, since six of the eight votes must be cast in favour to bring about any change, the sense that historic debts had long been repaid was gaining considerable momentum in the early part of this century.

To a large extent FIFA became diverted from examination of that by its own internal political problems in more recent years, but the fact that the British media has been prominent in seeking to apply pressure on its power-brokers, at whom accusations of corruption have regularly been flung, has done little to generate renewed goodwill towards the Home Unions.

The decision to hold a referendum on Scotland's identity and whether it truly sees itself as a country or is content to remain a region of Great Britain was, then, always going to invite external scrutiny.

In raising these questions, the Russian agency seized upon the famous branding of Scottish sports supporters as "90-minute patriots" by Jim Sillars, the nationalist campaigner, which was a valid thing to do.

There are many examples of regions around the world that once had their own separate national identities but no longer do, who would love to have the chance to pick and choose when they took part in international competition individually and collectively, but are not allowed to do so. Admittedly other exceptions exist, perhaps the most obvious example of which, in full international competition, is the West Indies cricket team.

However, in that case the situation is the other way around, with a sport that is played by relatively few at its highest level, having allowed, for competitive reasons, nation states to gather together to form a single team representing an identifiable region.

Every four years, of course, the British & Irish Lions do something similar, their existence allowing at least one prominent Unionist to make a spectacular fool of himself during this referendum campaign t by citing among his 20 reasons the UK should stay together the fact that the Lions would not be able to tour any more.

As Sir Chris Hoy and others have rightly pointed out, Scottish sportspeople are very eager to take full advantage of the economies of scale involved in being able to claim to be British when it suits them but others, too, seem to be thinking that the time to choose has arrived.

Just as happened 67 years ago, Great Britain's footballers may soon find themselves up against the Rest of the World, but this time it is the future of their associations, rather than that of FIFA, that will be on the line.

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