contributor perspectives

Of Soccer and Separatism: Why the Basque Decision to Seek FIFA Membership Matters

Tolga Ozyurtcu
Board of Contributors
8 MINS READJan 7, 2019 | 11:00 GMT
Basque team supporters unfurl an Ikurrina, the region's flag, during a friendly soccer match between the team and the Venezuelan national team in 2010.
(RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of the Basque select team unfold an Ikurrina (Basque flag) during a friendly football match against Venezuela at the San Mames stadium on December 29, 2010. The Basque team won 3-0.

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"How do I know if something is a sport?" Posing this question and navigating the ensuing debate are among the true joys of teaching sport-centered college courses. What appears at first glance to be an insultingly simple prompt can quickly tear a classroom apart. Metaphysical, epistemological and existential crises ensue. Attempts to devise a categorically driven, empirical definition are frustrating at best: How do we lay out efficient criteria that capture basketball, diving and figure skating all at once? Exhausted, the room settles down and someone says something along the lines of "we just know." From here, we eventually settle on something along the lines of "when enough people think something is a sport, it is a sport."

Whether we call this labeling process "legitimation" or "recognition," it bears some truth: The idea of sport is a human creation, so the power to bestow "sporty-ness" must lie with people and their institutions. Without going too far down the philosophical rabbit hole, the idea of nationhood is quite similar. In our time, a nation can refer to a group of people within a border or lacking borders, ethnically uniform or diverse, and so on. Oversimplifying things a bit, nationhood is ultimately a negotiation between a group that believes some things about itself and a critical mass of other peoples and groups who agree to recognize said group as such.

I've been thinking a lot about these parallels recently and not solely in the abstract. Last month, the Basque national soccer federation voted virtually unanimously (there was one abstention) to pursue official recognition by UEFA and FIFA, the European and international governing bodies of the sport, respectively. If granted membership to one or both groups, the Basque national team would have the chance to qualify for prestigious international tournaments: the Olympics, the World Cup and Women's World Cup (all administered by FIFA), and UEFA's European Championship, not to mention scores of developmentally valuable competitions for junior national teams. Any soccer fan reading this article knows that this isn't just a symbolic opportunity for a people who have long fought for recognition. The Basque talent pool is quite deep, and I believe their national team would immediately be an outside contender to qualify for each of these tournaments. In its current unrecognized status, the team is able to play only in esoteric tournaments and the occasional friendly match, such as its December 2018 victory over Venezuela, the 32nd-best team in the world according to FIFA. (And yes, soccer fans, I agree that FIFA's rankings are goofy at best, but the point remains the same: The Basque team is the real deal.)

I'll return to the soccer implications of the Basque proposal in a moment, but the push for recognition is a reminder that being a sporting "nation" and a political entity (whether nation or nation-state) are not always the same thing. We tend to default to the United Nations to tally the international states: 195 at the moment (the 193 members and observers the Holy See and Palestine). Never an organization to be outdone, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognizes 206 members. FIFA and track and field's international governing body, the IAAF, count 211 and 215, respectively. How can this be? The various international sports organizations each lay out requirements for membership, but they can essentially be boiled down to: If enough of our existing members decide that you are a nation, we will recognize you as such. For a less facetious explanation, I highly recommend two pieces published earlier this year in collaboration with Political Geography Now touching on the Olympics and the World Cup.

The "more the merrier" policy of the international sports organizations is easy to understand: more membership equals more money, exposure and influence.

So where do these "bonus" nations come from? Some are legacies from the early days of international sport: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all field their own soccer teams, but come together as Great Britain in the Olympics. Many are dependencies with varying degrees of political autonomy: I'm not sure how many Americans realized that Puerto Rico fielded a separate Olympics team before the U.S. commonwealth unexpectedly trounced Team USA in basketball at the 2004 Athens Games. Still others are political minefields: Taiwan has been out of the United Nations since 1971 but fields a team separate from mainland China in the Olympics (albeit as Chinese Taipei). Following its unilateral independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, the white minority government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) struggled for international political legitimacy but was quickly recognized by the IOC. The decision was met with boycott threats; the Rhodesians sent athletes to the games in 1968 and 1972, but they were prevented from actually competing through a variety of diplomatic maneuvers. Palestine controversially joined the IOC in 1995, almost 20 years before earning observer status at the United Nations.

The "more the merrier" policy of the international sports organizations is easy to understand: more membership equals more money, exposure and influence. But "overruling" international recognition also underscores the organizations' (dubious) claims that sports are not political, but universally human: The IOC would never call Palestinian recognition a political decision, but one instead that allowed another nation to enjoy the fellowship of global sport. Of course, in a world that places great value on sports and a geopolitical system happy to deploy soft power through sports, there is a tremendously political dimension to many of these moves for recognition, such as the current Basque example.

Stratfor readers are no strangers to issues surrounding Basque nationalism and separatism and can appreciate the symbolism of an independent soccer team. The aforementioned competitive potential of a fully recognized Basque team only makes things more interesting. The Basque proposal would almost certainly face opposition from not only the Spanish government, but also from the Spanish soccer federation, which would lose many great Basque players who currently wear the jersey of Spain (and are allowed to moonlight in those aforementioned occasional Basque matches). Basque acceptance would set a terrifying precedent for the Spanish governing body, opening the door for Catalonia to seek the same type of recognition. The Catalans have their own squad in the same sporting purgatory as the Basques, with a roster full of awesome talent. It would be a massive blow to the Spanish national team if both the Basque and Catalan autonomous regions became FIFA members and their top stars chose regional nationality over state nationality.

This isn't pure armchair pontificating on my part: Both the Spanish government and soccer federation have been down this road before, aggressively fighting to prevent Gibraltar's national soccer team from gaining international recognition. The political dimension in the case of Gibraltar was clear, as Spain contests British territorial claims. In soccer terms, the staunch opposition from the Spanish federation can only be read as fear of precedent for losing more powerful regions: Gibraltar is not exactly a giant in the sport. Gibraltar's bid began in 1999, but the territory didn't gain membership in UEFA until 2013 and FIFA until 2014. That lengthy period included multiple appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the 2001 introduction of a UEFA rule that only U.N.-recognized states could become members. Unsurprisingly, this rule change was attributed to heavy Spanish pressure, but the CAS ruled that because Gibraltar's bid to join predated the rule, it should not apply to them. This rule remains on the books and would appear to be the major roadblock to Basque (or Catalan) membership, but as I mentioned earlier, the rules seem to be dynamic and adjustable on the fly. Kosovo, unrecognized by the United Nations, has joined both UEFA and FIFA since the rule was put in place.

As with many of the topics we cover in the Geopolitics of Sports, this issue of international recognition is one with implications primarily for soft power: To leverage the opportunities presented by events like the Olympics, a nation (or nation-state or principality) needs a seat at the table. However, given the state of nationalist, Euroskeptic movements across the European Union, the question of Basque soccer independence has the potential to influence domestic politics in Spain, and in turn the Continental bloc. As a Stratfor analysis notes, Spain has largely resisted the type of nationalist movements popping up around the continent, but the recent success of the anti-immigration Vox party in Andalusian elections suggests that things may be changing. Vox favors a stronger, centralized Spanish state over the autonomy-driven status quo that has allowed regional identities and separatist movements to thrive in the country. Small as the party may be, its newfound strength came in reaction to Catalonia's secessionist leanings. The Basque push for soccer independence could fuel a further reaction from nationalist Spanish voters who, despite its limited symbolic value, may see it as further evidence of the fracturing of their country.

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