Dec 14

Can Northern Ireland become UFWC champions?

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The next Unofficial Football World Championships match is just over two months away on the 30 May, and it looks set to be a classic. Two teams with a proud and successful footballing history and plenty of passion will play each other. First ever World Cup winners Uruguay face reigning British Champions Northern Ireland in the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo – the venue where the World Cup began back in 1930. It will be the light blue of Uruguay against the shining emerald green of Northern Ireland.

Despite their low populations of 1.8 million (Northern Ireland) and 3.3 million (Uruguay) respectively, these two nations have consistently punched above their weight. Uruguay boast two World Cups and two Olympic golds, and are reigning South American Copa America champions. In fact, Uruguay have won 20 official football titles, a world record for the most international titles held by any country (though this doesn’t include the British Championships as that’s a closed competition – otherwise England and Scotland would be ahead).

Northern Ireland are the reigning British Champions, a trophy they won in 1984 and got to keep after the competition folded. Northern Ireland are still the smallest nation ever to reach the World Cup Quarter Finals (1958 and 1982). Northern Ireland shocked the football world in the 1982 World Cup by not only winning their group unbeaten, but they beat host nation Spain 1-0 in Valencia on a famous night. Only a dodgy disallowed goal prevented them from leading France 1-0 in their last match, a win would have astonishingly seen them into the Semi Finals.

On the field Uruguay has boasted the likes of Juan Alberto Schiaffino, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. Northern Ireland’s notable players include George Best, Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside. And, although he never played for the national team, famous Northern Irish footballer and legislator William McCrum was the man who invented the penalty kick.

This will be the fourth meeting between Uruguay and Northern Ireland, but the gap between the two sides in terms of quality has probably never been bigger. In recent years, Uruguay have been at their strongest since their glory days, while Northern Ireland have stooped to a low, losing to the likes of Azerbaijan and Luxembourg recently, drawing in Cyprus and failing miserably to qualify for the World Cup. While Uruguay beat Jordan to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Northern Ireland have now been absent since 1986. The Northern Irish are used to being the underdog though, so this match could be one they are up for and relishing, despite what is often a young, makeshift and inconsistent squad.

Uruguay finished fourth at the last World Cup finals, playing some scintillating football in the process. Star striker Luis Suarez is in unstoppable form in the English Premier League at present, and is the league’s current leading goalscorer. Northern Ireland haven’t had much fortune in recent years, but back in 2005 a David Healy goal gave the Ulstermen a deserved 1-0 win over England and a year later Healy bagged a hat-trick as the Northern Irish humbled the might of Spain at Windsor Park, Belfast. A full strength Spain team lost 3-2 in Belfast.

In terms of Unofficial Football World Championship wins, Uruguay sit just outside the top ten, seven wins behind France. Northern Ireland sit 29th, having won the championship five times. Northern Ireland haven’t contested a UFWC since they played the Germans in Belfast in 1997 (a match I was at, incidentally).

Northern Ireland also have the odd distinction of having held the trophy for an amazing seven years at one point. They beat England 3-0 in February 1914, playing a total of five matches in seven years, before losing 3-0 to Scotland in March 1920. Of course let’s not forget there was a World War happening at the time so football wasn’t being played as regularly as it could have been. What’s even odder was that Northern Ireland didn’t even exist until 1921. The team was known as Ireland until the break up of the island into two separate countries. All the early results have been attributed to Northern Ireland however, which is of course fair, given that all the matches were played in Belfast and most of the players came from the six counties which now make up Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland have been Unofficial Football World champions in ten matches, winning five, drawing two and losing three.

After the Irish separation, Northern Ireland were Unofficial World Champions two more times – in 1927 and 1933. Despite leading Germany 1-0 twice, in 1996 and 1997, they haven’t held the UFWC title again, and haven’t played a UFWC match since 1997. Uruguay first contested a UFWC match in 1952, when they lost 2-0 to Chile. In the following year, Uruguay won the UFWC title for the first time, beating Peru in Lima. Most recently, in 2013, a 3-2 win over Argentina brought the trophy back to Montevideo, and the Uruguayans look set to go into the World Cup as Unofficial Football World Champions. Unless Northern Ireland or Slovenia can beat them in their two warm up games.

The first meeting between Uruguay and Northern Ireland was a 3-0 win for Northern Ireland in Belfast in 1964 when George Best was in the Northern Ireland team. Two goals from Johnny Crossan and one for Sammy Wilson made it look easy for the home side. In 1990, Uruguay came to the UK for a mini tour before the World Cup in Italy. They first played Northern Ireland in Belfast, this time again losing 1-0. A Kevin Wilson goal won it for the Ulstermen. The same week Uruguay managed to beat England 2-1 at Wembley. Then in 2006, Uruguay won 1-0 in a friendly played in the USA.

The actual match ball from the first ever World Cup Final, Photo by Jonny Blair

The actual match ball from the first ever World Cup Final, Photo by Jonny Blair

The stadium hosting the Uruguay versus Northern Ireland match will be the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. As a keen football fan and globetrotter, I headed there to check out the stadium and loved it. Inside the stadium is an amazing football museum, Museo Del Futbol. Your entrance ticket for the museum will be a mock of the 1930 World Cup ticket – a souvenir to keep for sure. Inside the museum, as well as getting to see the stadium and a history of Uruguayan football, you also see some of the many trophies Uruguay have won down the years. Actual shirts worn in both the 1930 and 1950 World Cup Finals are on display, as is the ball used in the 1930 World Cup Final. A statue outside the stadium commemorates their two World Cup wins and two Olympic wins. You can read a full report on visiting the football museum in Montevideo here.

Uruguay is a completely football crazy nation and the locals are very proud of their football history. I actually spent a month there studying Spanish, and made Penarol my local team for the time I was there. The matches were full of end-to-end attacking football and the supporters were amongst some of the most passionate I have ever seen. I really admire the passionate spirit of the Uruguayans. As a Northern Irishman, this UFWC clash has particular interest for me!

Sadly, I won’t be attending the Uruguay versus Northern Ireland match in person, but I’ll certainly be watching, wearing my Northern Ireland shirt, hoping my wee country can somehow win back the Unofficial Football World Championships title in the stadium that hosted the first ever World Cup final. That would be some achievement. Uruguay will certainly be the favourites, but as UFWC fans are well aware, anything can happen over the course of 90 minutes. This promises to be a great match with something at stake, rather than just being another pre-World Cup friendly.

I’ll be back in the week before the game with a full match preview. In the meantime, you can keep up to date with all things UFWC via Twitter and Facebook. Don’t forget that the brand new 2014 edition of the official UFWC book, Unofficial Football World Champions, is out now, in paperback and on Kindle and iPad. And finally, if you missed it last week, don’t forget to check out the feast of football footage that is UFWC Goals Week.

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