Why is it that, in different sports, athletes represent different "countries"?

  • In football, curling, rugby (both union and league), and other sports, there are England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland teams;

  • In other sports, such as tennis, swimming, and athletics, there's only a single Great Britain team instead.

In some sports there are different national teams, in other sports only a Great Britain team.

  • 1
    This former question might help you.
    – Nick
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:37
  • Not just different sports: the national teams of each country compete in international field hockey, but are amalgamated at the Olympics, thus potentially playing for two different national teams in the same sport in the same year.
    – Nij
    Commented Mar 28, 2016 at 23:50

3 Answers 3


There's often a bit of confusion about this.

First of all, this might help: One of the main reasons for confusion is because there's muddling between political names (names of countries) and geographical terms (names of places).

Here political names are in blue and geographical terms are in red enter image description here

Note: the term "Republic of Ireland" is often used but the correct name for Ireland the nation-state is simply Ireland.

Secondly, the UK has a unique situation where both the constituent countries of the UK and the UK itself have the full status as a country. Politically they chose to be represented by the UK as a whole but it could be otherwise if the chose. This being the case, the countries of the UK have in some cases chosen to be represented as the UK\GB and in others to represent themselves as they see fit.

Ireland is a separate country and represents itself politically and in sports.

In Ireland in many sports such as rugby, cricket and GAA, national federations had already been formed and these organisations continued to just keep doing as they were doing with the sports people from Northern Ireland and Ireland choosing to still be represented by these bodies.

In other sports like football, there were differing opinions and people from Ireland chose to start a new governing body. The Football Association of Ireland was formed to govern football in Ireland (country) and the Irish Football Association, which had governed the whole country (when it was only one country), became the body for Northern Ireland only.

The reasons why some sports went one way and some went the other is probably down to the demographics of the sport, but that's just opinion.

In the Olympics:

Since the first Olympics, the UK has chosen to be represented by one team. Now normally called "Team GB", the correct name would be "Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland", originally "Team Great Britain and Ireland". This is just for the Olympics and often countries represent themselves for competitions within individual sports.

Since gaining independence in 1922(but dominion status until 1937), Ireland has competed individually in the Olympics.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, citizens of Northern Ireland are entitled to citizenship of the UK, Ireland or both. They are thus entitled to represent either Team Ireland or Team GB in the Olympics. It would have been common before then though.

With the unusually complicated nationality statuses, agreements with international governing bodies have had to be sought although in the case of older sports it was effectively continuing the existing arrangement.

I'm sure I've left some holes, but there you go.

  • 2
    In a lot of sports (especially football) the presence of separate England/Scotland/Wales teams is a historical anomaly, and would not be permitted if they were trying to join FIFA now. FIFA has stricter rules on who can join, and you have to be a sovereign state. This is to prevent e.g. Catalonia or Quebec trying to join FIFA as a separate entity. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 14:43
  • @DJClayworth Yes...and no. This all might be a bit off topic, but the sovereignty status the "Home Countries" is quite different to provinces/states of other countries. In most countries, the status of provinces is defined in constitution. The UK doesn't have a single written constitution, so nothing is quite so clear-cut. Their status is probably most similar to Canada/others before 1931 where it had political status, but not full sovereignty. That said, I think you're right in that it's doubtful that FIFA would have made a special case for the UK if it hadn't the political clout that it does
    – Niall
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 17:57
  • @Niall I'm a bit confused by your colour coding. I have never heard the term British Islands - only British Isles. And I am not clear why the Channel Islands have a different status, in this regard to the Isle of Man. All of them are self-governing Crown dependencies. And Channel Islands-born nationals generally play sport for England e.g. Matt Le Tissier. Southampton was his local team, and England was his country.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 13:05
  • 1
    @WS2 geographical terms are in red and political ones in blue. Your confusion seems to be that you're judging geographical terms on their political status.
    – Niall
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 0:14

The accepted answer, while doing a good job of presenting the background from a British point of view, doesn't really get at the actual reason for the unusual status of British teams in some sports.

It's very simplistic to consider that the UK's “constituent countries” have “full country” status as far as international law or sports bodies are concerned. Many sport bodies (including the IOC or FIFA) have in fact made their rules in this respect considerably stricter in the last decades and would almost certainly refuse to acknowledge anything like that if the UK (or any other country) would request it now.

There is therefore no reason to assume that the UK could simply choose to be represented by separate teams at any time, e.g. in the Olympics. Beyond all their peculiarities and no matter how the locals want to see them, the UK constituent countries are in fact very much in the same position as Bosnia and Herzegovina's autonomous entities, Swiss cantons, Belgium communities/regions, Dutch or Danish overseas dependencies, etc.

The actual reason England, Wales, Scotland and (Northern) Ireland teams still exist in rugby (union or league, though there is also a Great Britain rubgy league team), football, curling and cricket is that Great Britain had such an overwhelming influence on the development of these five sports, that it historically enjoyed, and to some extent still enjoys, an outsize influence on their governance. From that point of view, what's special here is not so much the way the UK is organised rather than the history of the sport itself.

On top of that, the all-Irish team in rugby union represents another anomaly, also rooted in history. I don't know much about the details but this team existed prior to the independence of Ireland and rugby was at the time primarily a sport of the protestant middle class. The latter might explain why there is no team for Ireland like there is football and other sports.

  • 1
    One data point worth noting: the Great Britain rugby league team was essentially disbanded in 2007 and replaced by the constituent teams, so it isn't impossible for this to happen these days.
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 14:07
  • @PhilippKendall That's interesting but as highlighted in the last paragraph, rugby (whether league or union) is an even more peculiar case and certainly not comparable to the other sports mentioned in the rest of the answer. I could perhaps imagine something like that in cricket too but I stand by my assessment of the UK's situation with respect to large, well-organised international bodies like the IOC.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 14:14
  • 2
    @Relaxed - It's a popular perception that rugby has traditionally been the "protestant middle-class" sport. The "middle-class" part has traditionally been accurate but, (while protestants may have been somewhat over-represented) the players religious affiliations have always been broadly representative of the general population (ie. have been overwhelmingly catholic in munster, connaught and leinster, and predominantly protestant in Ulster - political polarisation in Northern Ireland since its foundation means that your statement became true for this area)
    – Niall
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 19:48
  • In Ireland, it's really soccer that's the anomaly, not rugby. Most sports (and many other cultural institutions) are organized on an all-island basis.
    – TRiG
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 22:54

The United Kingdom (UK) is not alone. There are more than 20 members of FIFA (the primary organization that runs international soccer) that are not independent countries as recognized by the United Nations. For example, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands compete separately from the United States even though they are U.S. territories. Hong Kong and Macau have their own teams despite being special autonomous regions of China. In addition to the four you mentioned, the United Kingdom has several more teams that fall within its large historical umbrella: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks & Caicos Islands, and Gibraltar.

When I began looking into this question, my assumption was that FIFA liked maintaining a separate sense of what constitutes a "country" than the U.N. because it likes to imagine it is an international organization with power and influence on the level of the U.N. (And maybe this is true to some extent) Then I read Luke Bradshaw's story of Paul Watson's quest to bring the tiny island of Pohnpei into FIFA. I discovered that "As a non-governmental organization, FIFA is legally obliged to accept membership applications for states that want to join." FIFA is allowed to create application requirements and they leverage those to stall applications they don't like.

Of course, FIFA is not the only organization the runs international competitions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is another. Unlike in FIFA, the UK sends a single team to the Olympics, not four constituent teams. However, they (almost) never send any soccer teams at all. That's because they are worried that if they played soccer as the UK in the Olympics, FIFA might rescind their ability to play soccer as individual nations in the World Cup. One exception to this was during the 2012 Olympics which were in London -- the UK took the calculated risk of playing soccer as the host and it worked out just fine.

There's a clear downside to playing separately. Two of the best soccer players in the world over the past decade have never played in the World Cup because of it. Kim Little and Gareth Bale have been superstars in club soccer but haven't ever been able to shine on the biggest stage of all because they were born in Scotland and Wales respectively and even their skills have not been enough to drag these smaller nations into the World Cup. That will change next year for Kim Little whose Scottish team just qualified last night for the 2019 World Cup in France with a 2-1 win over Albania!

The underlying "why" question remains. Why not play as the United Kingdom? The desire to play for Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland or England instead of a consolidated United Kingdom must be rooted in national pride and history. It's maintained by negotiated agreement. The Home Nations agreement between the four regions sets out who is eligible to play for which of them and is much stricter than the general FIFA rules that allow quite liberally for (often Brazilians) to play for all sorts of national teams around the world.

  • The majority of this post reads like an article barely touching on the reasons behind the UK versus separate teams issue, and a lot of at best, unhelpful commentary. I suggest trimming out any text that isn't directly responsive to the question. Otherwise there is a risk of the post being deleted as Not An Answer.
    – Nij
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:55
  • I'm sorry you feel that way. I tried my best to answer the question. It seems material to me that the four nations within the UK are not even close to the only non-countries that are recognized by FIFA. Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 13:43
  • An entire paragraph talking about how specific players aren't getting their chance to "shine" and qualification for a world cup? Discussing eligibility to play for countries in the UK and taking an unjustified dig at Brazilian football players? I see no relevance at all,
    – Nij
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 18:11

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