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England's Official Matches:
The Disputed Matches


What constitutes an official international match has elicited a great deal of controversy.  The national football associations have used different criteria, sometimes so vague and loose that political and personal considerations have occasionally been allowed to dictate match status.  There have been axes to grind, favours to bestow, scores to settle, glory to be gained, prestige to be won.

To cite one example from England's own history, what was actually England's second-string B team played in Iceland on 2 June 1982, and England's first-string A team played the following night in Finland.  The earlier match, merely another in a string of friendlies against minor opponents for England, was a significant event in the history of Icelandic football.  Icelandic officials insisted that the team Iceland played should be designated England's senior team so the match would be recorded as a full international.  Wary of the political as well as sporting implications, the Football Association (F.A.) yielded to this pressure, and the match was accorded the status of a full senior team international.  And so England is recorded as having played two full internationals on successive days in 1982, the first time England had done anything like it since the early 1890's, when, for three years running, the F.A. fielded two separate teams on the same day to face Wales and Ireland.

As the 20th Century drew to a close, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), a scholarly enterprise based in Germany, set about preparing and publishing a series of volumes covering country-by-country all the international matches played since the first in 1872.  As part of that project, the IFFHS reached a consensus with FIFA, the game's supreme worldwide governing body, on the criteria for an official international match.  

Application of the new official match criteria has resulted in FIFA's retroactive desanctification of four England matches which have long been recognised as official internationals.  It has also led to FIFA's retroactive sanctification of one England match which has long been regarded as an unofficial international.

The FIFA/IFFHS effort to adopt a uniform or standard definition of official international matches is commendable as far as future international matches are concerned, although we question the rigidity and zealotry with which it apparently is to be applied.  The retroactive application of the definition to sanctify or desanctify matches played long ago is far from commendable because it plays havoc with team and player records, some of them precious, upsets traditions, some of them dear, and rewrites history, all of it sacrosanct.  

We regard the F.A.'s determinations regarding what constitutes an official England match as authoritative no matter what any other organisation, including FIFA, says.  We see no reason why the F.A. must follow FIFA's views on what constitutes an official international match, particularly when that means revising history, upsetting tradition and tampering with old records.  

The F.A. keeps the official records of the England team, not FIFA, and while FIFA may keep its own records in whatever manner it wants to, it has no authority or power to alter the F.A.'s own records of its own national team.  Put another way, the F.A. is entirely free to record the history of the England team and players according to its own view of that history, and FIFA has neither the authority nor the power to censor the F.A.'s view of its own national team's history.  

We see no reason why the F.A. and FIFA should not maintain separate and differing lists of England matches they regard as official.  It then becomes a question of which authority one wishes to follow, the F.A. or FIFA.  We choose the F.A., not only because it keeps the official records of the England team, but also because we believe the F.A. records, unlike FIFA's, faithfully reflect the team's history and that the F.A.'s determinations of the status of England's matches have been correct on their merits.

The Scotland Match at Ibrox Park in 1902

Our website's official match list does not include England’s British Championship match against Scotland at Ibrox Park in Glasgow on 5 April 1902, which ended in a 1-1 draw.  This match was long and widely regarded as unofficial because the collapse of an Ibrox Park stand, which killed 26 spectators and injured hundreds more, and the resulting chaos destroyed the game's competitive integrity.  For that reason, it was replayed at Aston Lower Grounds in Birmingham on 3 May 1902.

Yet the F.A.'s most recent England team history notes the Ibrox Park match was played to its conclusion, claims it was merely downgraded to a friendly match and replayed only as a British Championship match, and includes it in a chronological list of official England matches, although inconsistently omitting it from a separate list of England’s matches against Scotland.  Niall Edworthy, England: The Official F.A. History, pp. 16, 18, 177, 187 (Virgin Books, London, 1997).  The F.A. yearbook, which does not have a chronological list of matches played before World War II, does not include the Ibrox Park match in its list of matches against Scotland.   The Official FA and England Yearbook 1998-99, pp. 91-92 (Pan Books, London, 1998). 

While it may be true that the F.A. has never explicitly declared the match unofficial, public opinion cured any default, and it became custom to regard it as unofficial. This custom has carried considerable historical force, and the F.A. has previously appeared to accept it.  Indeed, if the F.A. now regards the match as official, it has rewritten history.  When England played Scotland on 29 May 1982 at Hampden Park, the match was celebrated as the 100th official international between the two countries, and to mark the occasion, two old rivals, Scotland's George Young and England's Tom Finney, were summoned to lead the teams onto the pitch.  Mike Payne, England: The Complete Post-War Record,  p. 240 (Breedon Books Publishing Company, Derby, U.K., 1993).  Yet if the 1902 Ibrox Park match was official, the 1982 match was actually the 101st official meeting, and all the celebratory hooplah came a match and a year too late. Such are the perils revisionist historians encounter; they cannot hide history's tracks and history traps them in their contradictions. The F.A. had it right the first time and should continue to observe custom.  

The F.A.'s official website omits the 1902 Ibrox Park match from its list of results, and that should cast aside the doubts raised by the 1997 official team history.  We note, too, that the Scottish Football Association does not include the match in its website listing of official Scotland international matches.  FIFA did not even come into being until a few years after the match was played, and it certainly has no business altering the status accorded the match by the bodies which had governing power over the game at the time it was played, the football associations of England and Scotland.  

In 2000, however, FIFA, following correspondence with the IFFHS, acknowledged the official international status of the match 98 years after it was played.  The IFFHS has stated:

"If a full international - for whatever reasons - was interrupted it will be registered as an official full international.  No national football association [has] the right to liquidate such full internationals (category 'A') and to consider [them] as non-existent.  These games were a reality, with all official preparation work according [to] the rules, and were until interruption, considered as a full international by all participating players, officials, spectators and media representatives.  And eventual disciplinary decisions taken by the referee are communicated to official instances [sic] for further judgment.  And last but not least the spectators did not get value of their ticket returned.  Under these circumstances the match of April 5th, 1902 between Scotland and England is registered as an official full international."

IFFHS, England (1872 - 1940), Eire (1924 - 1940), England/Amateurs (1906 - 1940): Full Internationals, p. 2 (IFFHS, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2000).  The IFFHS has also said:  "Because of this disaster (26 casualties and 587 injuries) the game was not continued and the match was declared void by the two football associations.  Of course this was not to cope with reality as spectators, selections, referees, the game itself and the death of 26 people could not be considered as non-existent [sic]."  Id. at 57.

Quite apart from its erroneous statements that the stand collapsed in the match's 51st minute and that the game was then abandoned, the IFFHS's reasoning is specious.  No one has denied reality or pretended the match was nonexistent; it is well-documented in the F.A. records and all the major English football histories.  To deny the match official status is not to say it was never played or that it did not exist.  The F.A. does not accord official status to England's Wartime and Victory internationals, either, but it does not thereby deny their existence.  FIFA and the IFFHS themselves have removed official status from England's matches against the Rest of Europe in 1938 and 1953 and the Rest of the World in 1963.  Does this mean they deny the existence of these matches, that they deny reality?  Of course not.  Equating refusal to accord a match official status with denial of its existence and even denial of reality is ludicrous.  That kind of thinking requires more than an analytical stretch; it approaches paranoid hysteria.  

The IFFHS clutches at straws in its effort to find reasons for declaring the Ibrox match official.  Every reason it cites is irrelevant to the question of match status.  Every factor it cites as support for making the match official is equally applicable to matches which are concededly unofficial.  The Rest of Europe and Rest of the World matches, too, were preceded by "all official preparation work according [to] the rules."  The fans, participating players, referees and media at these Rest of Europe and Rest of the World matches also thought they were attending official matches--and continued to think they were official until the end of the century when FIFA and the IFFHS took it on themselves to declare them unofficial decades after the fact.  Nor have the fans who attended the Rest of Europe and Rest of the World matches had their money refunded.  At least FIFA and the IFFHS have not volunteered to make the refunds; it would be quite expensive, for those matches were very well-attended and fairness might require refund of the ticket price plus compound interest.  Unlike the IFFHS, we think admission charges and refunds have nothing to do with whether a match should be accorded official status; the organisers of concededly unofficial matches have not yet been prohibited from charging admission.  Also entirely irrelevant is the fact that the players in a match are subject to discipline by the governing football association for disciplinary infractions reported by the referee.  Referees report such infractions and discipline is levied in unofficial as well as official matches; both kinds of matches are conducted under the authority of the relevant governing body.  

The view that the match should be declared unofficial and replayed was proper when it was taken a century ago and it is proper now, not only because, in the absence of match abandonment, it was the only fitting response to a tragedy of such dimension, but also because the disaster and the resulting crowd displacement severely disrupted play and altogether extinguished the players’ enthusiasm for the match.  These circumstances entirely undermined the competitive integrity of the game and compelled unofficial status.  

The authoritative study of the England-Scotland rivalry contains graphic descriptions, primarily eyewitness accounts from the press, demonstrating the impact the disaster and its aftermath had on match play.  Brian James' England v Scotland, pp. 74-76, 87-88 (Sportsmans Book Club edition, Readers Union Limited, London, 1970, originally published by Pelham Books, 1969).  "The new stand consisted of wooden planking upon steel uprights, and the swaying of the crowd trying to follow an attack of the Scottish forwards caused seven rows of planking, 30 yards wide to collapse under the weight.  And hundreds dropped like stones, but shrieking, 40 feet to the ground below."  Id. at 75.  The Daily Mail said,  "It was a scene too terrible to contemplate, as a great groan arose from this mass of humanity."  Id.  One account described how a Scottish player, "with tears pouring down his face, carried injured men as though they were babies to where treatment awaited them" before the players resumed the match after an 18-minute interval.  Id.  Another reporter wrote:  "They went back to play, knowing too well of the disaster.  They cannot be judged as to how they played."  Id. at 76.  A second Scottish player described "the difficulty of a match in which his passes continually cannoned off policemen running about the pitch to keep the crowd in place, or having to go among the mobs at the touchlines to get the ball."  Id.  Author James summed up the situation:

"Within six minutes of the start part of a new stand in the packed Ibrox stadium collapsed, raining spectators down upon the bodies of those who had fallen a split-second earlier.  After the players left the pitch - with a panicking crowd all over the area, they had little choice - it was decided that the match be resumed to prevent possibly worse scenes of disaster.

"But from that moment on the game lacked heart and fire, for although they did not know the extent of the casualty list, the teams did know that many had been killed and they were merely playing to occupy time while rescue services were organised.

"Even had they been in a mood to make a real match of it, it is doubtful whether they could have succeeded, for the crowds still encroached to the lines and often beyond them.  Players taking throw-ins had to beg room to move their arms ... wingers taking corners had to ask police assistance to create a corridor for their run-up to the ball.

"Templeton, often racing down Scotland's wing having to dodge spectators as well as English tackles, persevered to get over a centre from which Brown scored.  Just before half-time Settle equalised for England, taking advantage of a neat pass through the centre.

"After further debate at half-time the match was resumed but with the players now taking part with even less heart.  Some of the play in the last half-hour seemed more like exhibition football in contrast to the traditional fire of the matches in the series."

Id. at 87-88.  

The IFFHS says "the circumstances" require registration of the match as a full international almost a century after it was played.  That conclusion approaches the imbecilic; the disaster and its aftermath made the match a debacle requiring a replay, and that circumstance alone is determinative of the match's status no matter how many specious and irrelevant factors the IFFHS trots out.  Until the F.A. plainly states that the 1902 Ibrox Park match is official, we will continue to regard it as unofficial, and so should anyone else with any sense between their ears.

What the IFFHS and FIFA are really after is an objective standard for defining official internationals that prevents football associations and officials from manipulating official match status to serve their own subjective purposes, their political goals and personal ambitions and whims.  But that admirable end does not justify a standard so rigid that the football associations involved in a match no longer have any discretion as to its status and thus are no longer able to agree that it should be regarded as unofficial even in the most compelling circumstances, as when a horrible tragedy in the stadium destroys the match's competitive integrity.  Nor does it justify application of the new standard in a manner that appears to be guided by an unwavering prosecutorial fixation and the zealotry of Inspector Javert.  FIFA should give the football associations reasonable latitude for the exercise of sound discretion in this area.  Any abuse of that discretion may be checked by review of the status of individual matches when and if doubts arise.  A blanket rule rigidly removing all discretion from the associations directly involved in a match is unwise.  

The Second Sweden Match of 1923

Our official match list does include England's 3-1 victory against Sweden at the Olympiastadion in Stockholm on 24 May 1923 because the F.A. regards it as an official international.  The match played three days earlier at the same venue, a 4-2 England victory, is universally regarded as official.  But the Swedish Football Association has never accorded the second match official status, and, when our Swedish colleague Ulf Brennmo  inquired about it in 1999, denied having any record of it.  Several sources have noted that the match's status is disputed.  

The IFFHS states "The Swedish-English match on 24.5.1923 in Stockholm was not [an] official full international.  Both national associations had established before that this match against a Swedish combination should not be considered as official full international.  Afterwards, when England won this match, a few people wanted to consider it as official, which was not correct."  England (1872 - 1940), Eire (1924 - 1940), England/Amateurs (1906 - 1940): Full Internationals, p. 94.  

F.A. officials were among the "people" who took the view it was an official international.  Certainly the F.A. has support for its position that England were playing Sweden's senior side in the second match as well as the first.  Five of the Swedish players in the second match had played in the first match, which carries undisputed official status, and the remaining six Swedish players in the second match all played for Sweden in other matches of the period that are also recognised as official.  It was thus no second-rate Sweden side that met England in the second match.  See Ron Hockings & Keir Radnedge, Nations of Europe, vol. 2, pp. 276-77 (Articulate, Ernsworth, Hampshire, U.K., 1993).

We doubt the IFFHS claim that F.A. officials sought official status for the second Sweden match only after it resulted in an England victory.  We also doubt the IFFHS claim that the F.A. agreed before the match that it would have unofficial status and then reneiged on the agreement.  The England team of the time, 1923, hardly needed to grasp for victories over foreign opponents, and the F.A. did not need to take desperate measures to bolster the England team's record against foreign opponents.  At the time England had never been beaten by a foreign opponent.  They had just beaten Sweden in the first match, 4-2.  Only fairly recently had the F.A. stopped sending the England amateur side to play Sweden and other Continental European sides.  The F.A. of that era, whatever its other faults, firmly embraced the ideals of sportsmanship and fair play.

Thus far these rather inflammatory claims are based on nothing more than the IFFHS's ipse dixit.  Regrettably, the IFFHS does not offer any support for its claims or state any of its sources.  In the absence of any proffer of something resembling proof or any indication of something resembling a reliable source, we think those claims are highly dubious at best and probably fanciful.  At the very least we would like to know whether the IFFHS has relied solely on the Swedish Football Association for its claims, and, given the partiality of that source, what documentary proof, if any, is available.  We would also like to know if the IFFHS bothered to contact our own F.A. for its views on the matter before making these defamatory charges.  Given the lack of any proffer of support or source for its claims and given the considerable zeal with which the IFFHS has sought to exercise its new powers as advisor to FIFA on what constitutes an official international, perhaps we may be forgiven if we suspect that it has eagerly sought matches whose status it can affect and that it has caused changes in the status of the second 1923 Sweden match and others on the slenderest of grounds.   We also note that Cris Freddi, perhaps the football historian who has done the most  research into original sources on the England team, says in his The England Football Fact Book, p. 85 (1991), that the Swedish Football Association downgraded the status of the match "to avoid paying FIFA's share of the gate."  One would not expect the Swedish association to own up to that, particularly not to FIFA and its consultant, the IFFHS.

The Rest of Europe and Rest of the World Matches of 1938, 1953 and 1963

Our official match list does include England’s two matches against the Rest of Europe on 26 October 1938 and 21 October 1953 and the match against the Rest of the World on 23 October 1963.  The F.A. has long regarded these as official matches. 

The F.A.'s 1997 official history omitted them from its chronological and opponent-by-opponent match lists. The F.A.'s 1998-99 yearbook, however, included all three in its opponent-by-opponent lists and the two later matches in its chronological list of post-World War II matches (describing the opponent in the second Rest of Europe match in 1953 as FIFA).  Moreover, the F.A. awarded caps for these matches, and it is difficult to reconcile the awarding of caps with unofficial status.  Finally, the F.A.'s official website appears to settle the doubts raised by the 1997 official team history; it lists all three matches on its team record page although it overlooks the 1963 match on its results by opponent page.  Because we view the F.A. as the final arbiter of England's team record, we continue to follow it in listing these matches as official.

FIFA, however, has removed these matches from its list of official internationals.  As the IFFHS has stated "The match between England's national teams [sic] and an [sic] FIFA selection on October 26th, 1938 in London, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the FA, can not be recognized as an official full international, because the FIFA statutes [do] not permit it, because it is not a match between two Senior National Teams of two national associations of two different countries."  England (1872 - 1940), Eire (1924 - 1940), England/Amateurs (1906 - 1940): Full Internationals, p. 145.  FIFA defines full internationals "as games between two selections of different FIFA country members."  Id. at 2.  

The explanation the IFFHS gives is pure tautology:  the Rest of Europe and the Rest of the World matches are not official matches because the definition of official matches does not include them.  Why that definition does not or should not include matches against world or confederation all-star teams made up of players who perform for their own national teams is not explained.   These all-star teams are composed of superstars, only the best national team players.  They are therefore stronger than many national sides, and so denigration of these matches cannot be justified on the grounds of relative team weakness.  We can think of no reason why official recognition should not be accorded these all-star matches.   Merely offering a definition of official matches which by its terms excludes these matches without explaining the reasons for the exclusion is to exclude by arbitrary fiat.    That is precisely what FIFA and the IFFHS have done with respect to these time-honoured matches. 

FIFA has deducted a cap from the records of all the players appearing in these matches.  But the F.A. has not, and it is what the F.A. does that counts for us.  Thus FIFA credits Billy Wright, who captained England in the 1953 match, with only 104 caps while the F.A. credits him with 105 caps, as it has done since he finished his career in 1959.  And FIFA credits Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, who both played in the 1963 match, with one less cap than the 108 and 106 the F.A. has credited to them for the past three decades and more.  

This revisionism carries other unfortunate consequences for historical integrity.  Under the FIFA view, the F.A. had it wrong when it presided over formal celebrations marking the 100th appearances of Wright, Moore and Charlton, for each of those celebrations came a match prematurely.  And, according to FIFA, Wright and Moore no longer share the world record for captaining their national side 90 times; Moore alone now holds it because one of Wright's captaincies came in the desanctified 1953 Rest of Europe match.  But the F.A. still credits them with 90 captaincies each and still maintains they share the record.  

Every knowledgeable English schoolboy fan knows these numbers; they are dear to the heart of older fans, too, for they saw these records set.  Now FIFA and its consultant, the IFFHS, want to change these time-honoured records decades after the fact without giving any real reason for doing so.   We say no to them; they may do as they will with their perverted and distorted version of history, but they should not and will not be allowed to tamper with our history.

The Abandoned Argentina and Republic of Ireland Matches of 1953 and 1995

Our match list does include England’s match against the Republic of Ireland on 15 February 1995 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, which was abandoned after 27 minutes, with Ireland leading 1-0, because of crowd trouble. The F.A. 1998-99 yearbook’s list of England’s matches against the Republic of Ireland omitted the match, but inconsistently included it in its chronological list of post-war England matches. Similarly, the F.A.’s 1997 official history omitted the match from its list of England matches against the Republic of Ireland, but included it in its chronological England match list, although it misstated the venue as Wembley Stadium. The F.A.'s official website does now record the match, and since the website contains the most recent match list, the inclusion must be taken as indication the match may now have official status.  The F.A. decided to award caps for the match, reversing an earlier decision to withhold them, and, again, it was difficult to reconcile the awarding of caps for this match with unofficial status.  

Furthermore, precedent supports official status for the match although it was abandoned.  Both the F.A.’s official history and its yearbook recognise as official England’s 17 May 1953 match against Argentina in Buenos Aires, which was abandoned near the middle of the first half, with both teams scoreless, because of torrential rain. There is no reason to treat the Republic of Ireland match differently.  As noted above, the FIFA/IFFHS position supports designation of these matches as official although they were not played to their conclusion.

We believe the proper approach would be to record these abandoned matches not as a draw and a loss but simply for what they were--abandonment's--and originally we did so.  However, although the teams played for only 21 minutes, the football associations of England and Argentina agreed the 1953 match should stand as a scoreless draw.  Since the F.A. records list the Argentina match as a draw, we have now decided to bow to their official status and have also recorded it as a scoreless draw.  Despite the Republic of Ireland leading 1-0 in the abandoned match of 1995, this too is now counted as a scoreless draw.  Giving it equal significance to the abandoned Argentina match.