Sovereignty and non-state territories in international football

Published: 20 September 2021

Blog post by Ramesh Ganohariti, PhD researcher at Dublin City University

Football is widely regarded as the most popular sport in the world. The global football governing body Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) claims to ‘ensure that the game of football is available to and resourced for all who wish to participate’. Despite this, discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, culture, and physical challenges continue to be observed. In addition, we see structural inequality based on the inability of certain territories and their citizens to engage in FIFA-backed football. One reason is their lack of ‘sports sovereignty’.

Sports sovereignty is conferred on territories that have, and are recognised as having, the ultimate authority to govern sport in their territory. Some territories can have sports sovereignty despite lacking political sovereignty. For example, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England each have sports sovereignty, whereas it is the United Kingdom that claims full political sovereignty. In football, recognition of football sovereignty is demonstrated by FIFA membership.

There is no perfect correlation between political sovereignty and football sovereignty: not all politically sovereign territories are FIFA members and vice versa. In our article, (co-authored with Sascha Düerkop), we demonstrate that, just like political sovereignty, there are degrees of football sovereignty: football sovereign, quasi-football sovereign (members or associated members of a continental Confederation but not FIFA itself), football dependent (territories that play under a National Association of another territory) and football isolated (fully excluded from FIFA backed football). As indicated in the table below, 185 UN members are also FIFA members (211 total), but nine sovereign states lack FIFA membership. Twenty-four non-politically sovereign territories have FIFA membership, and a further 32 territories lack both full football and political sovereignty.

We identified diverse reasons for (not) gaining FIFA membership. In certain cases, like the Marshall Islands, Monaco, and the Vatican, non-membership is voluntary. In other cases, geo-political, structural, financial, logistical, and/or historic reasons result in the lack of FIFA membership for some but not other territories, despite them sharing a similar political status. For example, despite similarities in their political status, the Faroe Islands are a member of FIFA while Greenland is not. The latter was initially excluded due to the lack of a natural grass pitch on the island. When this was no longer a requirement, rule changes in UEFA (in 2001) and FIFA (in 2004) meant they were no longer eligible; UEFA now requires new members to be fully sovereign states, and without Confederation membership a territory cannot join FIFA. Tuvalu has been excluded due to a lack of good hotel accommodation, and Niue due to being “too small”, although these conditions are not formal requirements. In the case of Kosovo, membership was conferred given its recognition “by the majority of the United Nations members as an independent state”. However, several territories interested in gaining FIFA membership have not been able to do so, resulting in some opting to engage in alternate football tournaments such as CONIFA.

There is also a tension between sports sovereignty and political sovereignty. FIFA has asserted that questions of membership are considered independently and that it does not feel bound to international legal norms when it comes to recognizing applicants as independent. However, it is clear that norms of political sovereignty influence decision making. FIFA’s membership rules over time have become closely aligned to those of political institutions like the UN, i.e. delimiting membership based on recognition of sovereign statehood. This rule change did not affect existing FIFA members, resulting in the exclusion of certain territories because of their political status, despite that status being identical to some existing FIFA members.

Denial of membership has practical consequences. In “football isolated territories”, players, referees, coaches and administrative staff have no access to training, development grants or international exchange. By acting as a gatekeeper and effectively restricting certain territories' access to international football, FIFA has created a form of structural inequality between territories having an identical or similar political status. In so doing, it is arguably undermining its own objective “to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural, and humanitarian values”.

Football is not the only sport where political and sports sovereignties are non-aligned. Similar examples can be seen in the membership of other International Sports Governing Bodies (ISGBs).  such as the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, with just over 115 members, to the International Table Tennis Federation, with 226 members.

For territories that lack political sovereignty, sports sovereignty is often intricately tied to their status as a distinctive political community with a distinctive territorial identity. Sports teams in Scotland and Wales, for example, famously act as vehicles for the expression of national distinctiveness. Sports sovereignty can be especially important for contested territories like Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, often described as de facto states. For such territories, due to international (political) exclusion, sports (diplomacy) becomes one of the few potential avenues for international engagement. By participating in international sport, including tournaments like CONIFA, these territories strive to make a political statement to external audiences. Namely their desire to change the sporting (and political) status of the territories they represent.

That said, most de facto states have had limited success in gaining membership in ISGBs recognised by the Olympics, with the exception of Taiwan perhaps. Despite being recognised by less than 20 states, Taiwan has joined 69 out of 78 IOC-recognised ISGBs, by being flexible in the name under which it is granted membership (“Chinese Taipei”). Thus, a potential solution for contested territories to gain membership in international organisations is to follow the flexible approach of Taiwan. This said, it is equally important, as argued in our paper, for ISGBs like FIFA to stop arbitrarily treating territories differently even if they have an identical or similar political status. We put forward several approaches to harmonize the rules. However, we expect that FIFA will remain hesitant to let in any other non-UN-member territories and it looks likely that its unequal treatment of these territories is here to stay.


Bio - Ramesh Ganohariti is a PhD researcher at Dublin City University. His interests lie in issues of contested sovereignty and his PhD investigates the phenomenon of (legal) citizenship in post-Soviet de facto states. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council.


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