In this question about countries boycotting the World Cup, it was pointed out in several answers, quite correctly, that the national football leagues in question aren’t government agencies and the government doesn’t directly control them, making it somewhat difficult for the government to actually be in charge of whether or not the country boycotts the event.

However, those national leagues will play as “Team Country Name,” the official representatives of that country, at the World Cup, and it seems to me that the government of those countries might (but also might not) have some say over how the country’s name is used and who can or cannot claim to represent the country.

I’m reminded of similar logic used (I’ve been told) by the emperor of Korea when giving his first televised address regarding the poor safety record of Korean Airlines. As I understand it, he noted that Korean Airlines was a private company, but since they were using the country’s name and in a sense representing the country on the international stage—and representing it poorly by its then-terrible safety record—he felt it was appropriate for him to comment on what was going on and express his dissatisfaction. Obviously, that was very much not a Western democracy, but similar logic might still apply.

So do Western democracies tend to assert any kind of rights towards the country’s name and who can and cannot claim to represent the country? Could they tell the national football league that they can go to the World Cup if they like, but they can’t claim to be the official team from that country and must play under some other name? Or can any private citizens of that country use the country’s name as they see fit, and any group of them claim to represent that country for some particular event?

I realize that this is fairly broad, since it isn’t focused on any particular country, but I’m looking for an answer that’s more of political philosophy than it is particular laws—though examples to illustrate the philosophy, or differences in philosophy, would be ideal as well.

  • I have absolutely no idea how to tag this, beyond [western-world]. My apologies if there are any important ones I’ve missed.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 2:10
  • 10
    Korea has an emperor these days? The last one was displaced by the Japanese in 1910, some years before airlines existed: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunjong_of_Korea
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 4:55
  • @jamesqf I was mostly reporting a story I vaguely remember, that may well not have been from a reliable source to begin with (pretty sure it was a Gladwell book); its accuracy is not all that relevant as it’s just an illustration of the idea I had in mind. I’ll try to correct it nonetheless, of course. I hadn't meant “these days” to begin with, though—rather, sometime before the Korean War, since “these days” there isn’t even a Korea to be emperor of.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 12:23
  • 2
    There's not a Korea? Certainly there is, and a democratic one to boot, even if a large part of it is under the control of a dictatorial bandit regime :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 16:46

5 Answers 5


What governments can do (supposedly) and what they do are two different issues. Technically, FIFA is an independent, private association and governments of the world don't have a say in their decisions. In the practice, however, FIFA can be subjected to many kinds of pressure that make sure they kowtow to the will of the states. The more powerful the state, the easier to subdue FIFA.

In Spain, for example, the "Ley del Deporte" (Law of Sports) determines that the national Spanish federations are the only ones allowed to participate or represent Spain in international tournaments. That's to prevent the long-sustained ambition of Catalonia (mainly) and the Basque Country to have their own teams competing in international tournaments just like Scotland and Wales are allowed to do in the United Kingdom.

Since many Catalan sport federations were founded before there was a Spanish federation of the same sport, Catalonia was able to register for many international sport associations. Spain then successfully forced them to merge with the Spanish federations and substituted them in international matches. Currently there are only 20 Catalan sport federations which can compete internationally, all of them in minority sports. If quidditch ever becomes a hugely popular sport, be sure Spain will have its way to prevent the Catalan national team from competing.

  • Interesting - so if Catalonia wanted to field a team, they'd presumably have to convince FIFA to recognise them, then I wonder could Spain do anything about it? What if, for example, a team wanted to represent a country that was currently under an oppressive regime but this team was not approved by the regime, could FIFA allow them to play for that country instead of the government-approved team? Or do they have a strict "Governments' teams only" policy? (though I see the question is about western democracies specifically)
    – komodosp
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 8:49
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    @colmde Just look the wikipedia page for the national football team of Taiwan: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Taipei_national_football_team It started as the China National team, but after loosing the chinese civil war against the communists, these team represented only the fraction of China under the nationalist government - so is, Taiwan. Communist China succesfully lobbied FIFA to make them surrender the name of China National Team and rejoin FIFA as People's Republic of China in 1954. So, to answer your question, it depends upon how powerful is this oppresive regime.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Apr 12, 2019 at 9:06

The US does have laws pertaining to this, and I'm guessing other countries do as well.

According to 36 U.S. Code § 220523(b),

A national governing body may not exercise any authority under subsection (a) of this section for a particular sport after another amateur sports organization has been declared (in accordance with binding arbitration proceedings prescribed by the organic documents of the corporation) entitled to replace that national governing body as the member of the corporation for that sport.

And the powers under (a) include the powers to:

represent the United States in the appropriate international sports federation;


designate individuals and teams to represent the United States in international amateur athletic competition (other than the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games, the Pan-American Games, and the Parapan American Games) and certify, in accordance with applicable international rules, the amateur eligibility of those individuals and teams.


So do Western democracies tend to assert any kind of rights towards the country’s name and who can and cannot claim to represent the country?

In general no.

There is almost certainly already a British cheese-rolling association† but if there were not I could create one, register it as a charity or as a limited company and start an international competition at which I and members of my association would represent Britain.

The government‡ does not have exclusive rights to use of the name of the nation.

Generally the legal branch‡ would only get involved if there is an attempt to use the name to deceive people in order to cause them harm.

I suspect the same applies in most "western" democracies.

† or anything else my imagination could come up with right now.
‡ terminology differs, in some countries judiciary is regarded as an arm of the government, elsewhere government colloquially means just the executive branch (administration).


No, especially if not citizen and not in territory of country (true for ANY country). Maybe North Korea can stop foreigner use North Korea's flag inside North Korea but not outside. Flags of all country is public domain. Any person can buy and display flag of any country at sports like World Cup. No person think any groups at sport event represent any country, they just fans of a country's team. Also I see flags of country not in World Cup competition, example China, Việt Nam, United States.


An individual or group of individuals could wear clothing having the flag of the nation printed on the garments that they wear.

It would be implausible if not hypocritical (White House Distributes American Flags Made in China; Why are American flags made in China?) for a so-called western democracy to prohibit their citizens from wearing clothing with the nations' flag printed onto the garment in a foreign country.

Am not aware of an historical instance where a so-called western democracy has advised the citizens of their nation to not wear specific clothing, outside of travel advisories issued by the respective nations' state department or equivalent.

The common people of the world are adept enough to be aware of the basics of the political machinations of the day, and the difference between an athlete and nation state policies. Athletes or persons engaged in other non-political activities do not need to speak, write or otherwise claim that they are representing a specific nation. They can simply don attire with the flag of the nation during competition.

As far as asserting rights as to the usage of a nation, while remaining within the garment industry, millions of articles of clothing are sold each day bearing the name and flags of nations, where the garment is made either in the nation or imported from foreign nations.

Am not aware of any case where an entity claimed ownership of the de jure name of a nation. For example, if Great Britain did assert a claim of ownership of the term Great Britain, the athletes could print Albion on their athletic gear and attire to circumvent such a claim.

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