As Scotland prepare to face Brazil at the Emirates Stadium, there’s little question which side the neutral would see as having the most illustrious history. The team that wears the famous gold shirts have lifted five World Cups and eight Copa America titles and their name is synonymous with “the beautiful game”.
But which team holds the record for the most Unofficial World Championship wins, having won 86 world title matches, 12 more than any other nation in the world? They are playing at the Emirates on Sunday and they aren’t from South America.
The idea of “unofficial world champions” began when Scotland beat newly crowned World Cup holders England in 1967 and fans claimed it proved that the team from north of the border could now lay claim to the title of best international side in the world. It’s an idea that Paul Brown has expanded on, laying out the rules for an alternative title that has a story that is weirder and is arguably more wonderful than the history of the World Cup.
It’s a simple idea. Instead of a tournament every four years to decide who is the best on the globe, the title is almost always up for grabs. Like a belt in boxing, the title of Unofficial Football World Champion (UFWC) belongs to a team until someone beats them to take the crown. Brown’s informative and entertaining book traces the history of that title from the very first international to the present day.
The premise is an excuse for Brown to cast his eye over matches of the past and though some classic games, like West Germany against Holland in 1974, are part of the story the fresh perspective of a different title being up for grabs makes for a fresh take on well-worn tales. Gerd Muller’s winner in that game may have sealed a World Cup win but even the German goal machine wouldn’t have been aware that he had helped unify the European, World and UFWC titles for the first time.
The beauty of the book is not in the meeting of global giants though. Where the story comes alive is when the UFWC strays far from the official championships and is passed around the globe via some unlikely nations. While the FIFA World Cup has been won by eight different teams, the UFWC title has been held by no less than 47 and some of those are unlikely champions.
Within the pages, there are stories such as Netherlands Antilles (population 200,000) beating Mexico (pop. 100 million) in El Salvador to take a title they would hold for all of four days. There is the tale of minnows Zimbabwe taking the title from lowly Angola in a match that also counted as a World Cup and an African Nations qualifier. Every game has its own story and Brown’s eye for the odd mean that the intriguing is always given as much prominence as the informative.
Unofficial Football World Champions works well as a cover- to-cover history but is also one of those books it’s a pleasure to dip into from time to time. The match by match format means that randomly flicking through the pages you can happen upon the Austria v Greece qualifier that was abandoned five minutes from time and never replayed despite being a Euro qualifier or when the Faroe Islands blew their chance at the title against Russia in 1995. Or that Denmark, inspired by the Laudrup's humiliated Brazil 4-0 in a friendly in the late 80s.
More likely you will marvel at the fact that in this unique take on the best in the world not only are the established names like Pele, Maradona and Cruyff represented but that names like Oblitas, Spink, Choi and Scotland's very own Craig Beattie take their place in the record books.
The end of this fascinating and thoroughly entertaining read offers plenty of stats and detail but it is the stories within that bring the idea and the matches to life. Simply put, it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in international football
Verdict: What could have been a neat idea but presented as series of results and stats comes to life in rich colour. A history of football that doesn’t just celebrate the giants but offers a moment of often unwitting glory to any nation that plays the game.