Spain, winner of the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship, and No. 1 in both the FIFA World Ranking and the World Football Elo Ratings, is the consensus best soccer team on the planet. Vicente Del Bosque's side, which features the magical playmaking of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, holds nearly every international trophy of note. Spain is the only logical choice for current world champion.
Unless your name is Paul Brown. The football writer argues that North Korea can stake at least a claim to the throne, and he makes a compelling—or at least compellingly weird—case.
In 2003, Brown took a simple idea he heard floating around and made it a reality: What if someone tracked every game—starting with the first international fixture between England and Scotland in 1872—and created a boxing-style tournament with a single championship on the line? The first match was a 0-0 draw (soccer haters: snicker here) but England defeated Scotland 4-2 on March 8, 1873, taking the fictitious championship belt. They lost the honor less than a year later when Scotland prevailed 2-1 in Glasgow.
Brown continued his quest to find the true champion of international football and wrote up the results in an article for FourFourTwo. The answer he found nearly a decade ago surprised him: Angola. It was so shocking, in fact, that he decided to start a website dedicated to the endeavor. The formal Unofficial Football World Championship was born. Brown began highlighting specific games, both well-known ones like the United States' 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, and games no one would otherwise care about such as a friendly between Israel and Russia in Haifa on February 23, 2000. The UFWC gave some of these games a point, even if only a few people understood the stakes. "You throw the Unofficial World Championship into the mix, and obviously it's tongue and cheek, but from a spectator's point of view it throws a little bit of interest in there," Brown says.
The website gained traction with a small subset of football fanatics, a fact Brown reports with a tone suggesting he would be surprised by this if he weren't one of them. The effort spawned a book, which delves deeper into the history, highlighting more matches and fixing earlier errors. "FIFA's records aren't always correct, especially in the early years. The records can be patchy," Brown says. "Over the years, we've found some games that changed chronology slightly, but luckily, it always seems to right itself within a couple of matches. As it stands at the moment, I'm pretty confident that the results that we have on the website are not going to change."
Those results have Scotland at the top of the all-time Unofficial Football World Championship ranking with 86 title match defenses. It's an honor to which the Scots, also-rans in the current footballing universe, have attached themselves. "It's the only thing that Scotland has ever won in international football," Brown says. "Scottish fans have really taken to that."
England (73 title defenses), Argentina (51), the Netherlands (49), and Russia (41) round out the top five. The United States sits tied with Georgia and Portugal for 38th place on two title defenses, one more than Mexico but three behind CONCACAF minnow Costa Rica. According to UFWC lore, titleholders receive an emailed image of the CW Alcock Cup, named for Charles William Alcock, the secretary of the English Football Association who organized the first match between England and Scotland. The UFWC is currently seeking a sponsor to create a physical version of the trophy.
The UFWC is one of those quirky ideas that increasingly move from the mind of some impassioned soul to the greater collective conscious. The Internet gave Brown the perfect platform to tinker while simultaneously allowing other fans to fact-check his work and add their own suggestions. It gives meaning to games that don't matter, all across the world.
"Japan was the champion [in 2010 and 2011]," Brown says. "The UFWC went massive in newspapers and websites there. A Japanese publisher republished my book in Japanese and it's sold more in Japan than it has in the rest of the world. We're still talking a relatively small number, but it shows that Japanese fans really jumped on board with the prospect of winning something when otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance."
Which bring us back to North Korea.
The Chollima, ranked No. 81 in the world by FIFA, officially ascended to the unofficial top spot with a 1-0 victory over Japan in Pyongyang on November 15, 2011. They have defended the title 12 times since then, most recently defeating Hong Kong 4-0 in the semifinal of the EAFF East Asia Cup. But it was a game against the Philippines on March 9, 2012 that showed the potential reach of the UFWC in the age of social media.
"It seems that the majority of the Philippines players are on Twitter. They got really invested in it. There was quite a big build up to the match on Twitter. And then they lost. They didn't become Unofficial World Champions," Brown says. "That's the nearest we've gotten to knowing that players know what is up for grabs. Unfortunately, they couldn't take advantage."
North Korea retained the title after defeating the Philippines 2-0. They don't play again until 2013, so it will be theirs for at least another few months and likely more after that, as they generally play inferior competition. Being unofficial champions of the football world doesn't have the same ring as FIFA No. 1. Still, it's not hard to imagine Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un using the title for propaganda purposes, provided he has sufficient wireless capacity. If only someone would tell him such a tournament exists.