THE BLOG

It's Time for a British Football Team

20/06/2014 10:29 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST

Which was the biggest country in the world not to enter the World Cup? Hint: it's a member of the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Security Council. It has a population of over 60million. It has a valid claim to have invented football, or at least formalised it, and the first ever 'international' match was played there.

This is a peculiar, contradictory time to be writing about the prospect of a combined British football team. On the one hand, the nations of the UK seem to be pulling away from each other, with Scotland holding an independence referendum in September, the first murmurs emerging that Wales might want to do the same, and English nationalist sentiment apparently on the rise.

But in football terms, the timing seems to be just right. It is now 16, 56 and 28 years since Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively, qualified for a World Cup. England is only marginally more successful: usually managing to qualify but rarely mounting anything like a serious attempt at winning the thing. It is almost a quarter of a century since they reached the semi-final stage.

Meanwhile, there are positive signs of footballing integration. The UK entered men's and women's teams at the 2012 Olympics: the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish FAs refused to cooperate but many of their players voted with their feet and joined the squads anyway. The teams performed well despite the lack of any preparation, both reaching the quarter-finals.

When we look at the English Premier League, we notice that last season two of the teams were in fact Welsh - 10% of the league. Of the managers in charge of teams finishing in the top eight, one was English, one Northern Irish, one Welsh and one Scottish (a perfect balance helped by Ryan Giggs' replacement of David Moyes at Manchester United).

If you want a purely football reason for establishing a British football team, look no further than Gareth Bale. The world's most expensive footballer will almost certainly never play in a World Cup. My reasoning isn't purely selfish here. Yes, a British team with Bale in it would have a much better chance of victory than any of the individual nations do. But don't we also owe it to world to stop excluding our most gifted citizen from performing on the game's greatest stage?

It need not be Team GB or nothing. Perhaps for the European Championships the home nations could retain their separate identities. This model is already well-established. We compete together in the Olympics, but separately in the Commonwealth Games. In rugby union, we have separate national teams that are amalgamated (with Ireland, too) for Lions tours.

Of course, the decision is mainly a political one, and rightly so. If this were just about football, we might as well merge with France too and have a front three of Bale, Rooney and Ribery. And Scotland might vote yes to independence, of course, putting a dampener on the whole idea. But if Scotland stays, as I hope it will, the result will open up an opportunity to institute new, shared symbols of British unity - perhaps a new constitution and national anthem, and certainly a football team.

Wouldn't it be nice to think that our national sport, with its ability to both unite and divide communities, could lead the way in bringing the British people together with a shared vision of a modern, multi-cultural, multi-national country, albeit one with a outdated fondness for the 4-4-2 formation?