This summer, amidst a media typhoon of hype and fanfare, the elite powers of Europe will compete on the fields of Poland and the Ukraine for UEFA's top prize. Despite Euro 2012 having been besieged by problems since its infancy, from issues with the stadiums and infrastructure to political infighting that could see many key figures boycott the tournament, millions of people around the globe will tune in to watch the action unfold, captivated by the stories that will take shape. But a little closer to home, and a few months ahead of schedule, the intrigue of international football has already reared its head in the most unexpected of places.
An old sea fort lying just six miles off the coast of Harwich, and constructed for use during the Second World War with the purpose of defending Britain from German air raids, is perhaps the last place you would ever dream that football's presence would be felt. But then Sealand is a place that is full of surprises. After the last remaining military personnel stationed on the fort were removed in 1956 the site lay deserted, at the mercy of the North Sea, until 1967 when Major Paddy Roy Bates occupied the turret with the intention of broadcasting his pirate radio show from the isolated location. Forty-five years later Bates is still there, and that old fort has become a self-proclaimed sovereign state, that of Sealand.
By virtue of lying beyond the then three mile limit of Britain’s national waters, Sealand lay outside of Britain's jurisdiction in 1967, and consequently Bates' vision for an independent nation grew. Official passports and stamps were issued from 1969, a flag was designed and a national anthem composed, and in 1975 Bates even introduced a written constitution. An official currency – the Sealand dollar – with a fixed exchange rate of one U.S. dollar was also established, and an address and postcode system was developed allowing the lonely outpost to receive mail through a PO Box on the mainland.
Last week Sealand made its first official foray into the glitzy world of international football
But the creation of an independent Sealand is not a story of simple whimsy. Over the years the Bates family have had to contend with the British military, who destroyed neighbouring sea forts to prevent instances of copycat settlers, an attack on their territory by a band of hired mercenaries, kidnap, ransom demands, a fire that destroyed a large section of the fort's buildings and the intervention of a group known as the Sealand Rebel Government, who continue to claim to be the legitimate ruling authority of the principality. As if that wasn't enough to contend with, last week Sealand made its first official foray into the glitzy world of international football.
No stranger to sporting competition, having accepted athletes with a range of nationalities to compete in a variety of disciplines from athletics to skateboarding and mini-golf to fencing, assembling a football team seemed a logical step for Sealand. In 2009 a Football Association was set up, and Scottish author Neil Forsyth was appointed as its president. Long term Forsyth's plan was for Sealand to compete in the VIVA World Cup, an international tournament held every two years for members of the New Federation Board, an organisation for nations not recognised by FIFA. Sealand's journey towards that goal began in earnest with a friendly last weekend against the Chagos Islands, played at Weycourt, home of Godalming Town Football Club.
Sealand assembled a squad of ex-professionals and celebrities for the fixture, supplemented by fans who were encouraged to submit their CVs for consideration. Prince Liam of Sealand played at left back for his country, with Simon Charlton – formerly of Southampton and Bolton – and Derek Stillie, a Scottish goalkeeper selected for several national squads but who failed to win a cap, providing the touches of quality in the side. Actor Ralf Little was the glamour signing, but even he couldn't prevent Sealand from losing 3-1. The assembled press cared not however as they clamoured over the Sealand squad and dignitaries, eager to report on their amazing tale.
Today Diego Garcia is the only island that remains occupied, and only by military personal
Lost amongst this frenzy was the story of the Chagossians, one that is perhaps even more remarkable than that of their opponents. The Chagos Archipelago is a string of more than sixty islands in the Indian Ocean, just over 300 miles south of the Maldives. Up until the early 1970s the Chagos Islands were home to a community of 2000 indigenous people, before they were forcibly removed by the British to make way for an American naval base on the largest island, known as Diego Garcia. Today Diego Garcia is the only island that remains occupied, and only by military personal. The plight of the Chagossians, forced from their homes and into the slums of the Maldives and the Seychelles, was largely ignored by the British until 2004 when, in a gesture of apology, they granted the former islanders and their families British passports, a move which has seen an unlikely Chagossian community spring up in Sussex. Out of this community the Chagossian Football Union was born.
There is an irony that the fixture between Sealand and the Chagos Islands brought together two nations unrecognised by the wider world, one created by the British military and the other destroyed by it. Though there may be a world of difference in their origins, both Sealand and the Chagos Islands are on a quest for international recognition. Football may yet give them both the opportunity they crave as the Chagos Islands, fellow members of the New Federation Board, are too striving for a place at the VIVA World Cup. Without the attention their opponents command, and with their people ravaged by forty years of ill treatment and neglect, the Chagos Islands face an uphill struggle to raise the funds required to take them to the tournament however.
Whatever the future may hold for the Chagossians and the Bates family, last Saturday's game served as timely reminder of the true magic of international football. Though FIFA and UEFA's showcase events demand our attention, there is beauty and mystery to be found in the farthest corners of the globe that no amount of big name prestige can replicate. As the countdown to Euro 2016 continues, we should all spare a thought for the respective plights of this pair of outsiders. For the best part of half a century, far too few people have.
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