The Sealand national football team has had several celebrity players, a chequered history, and call a naval fort home

By Adam Hurrey

During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it emerged that a seven-page document had been supplied to stadium security staff, detailing dozens of flags that tournament organizers had banned from being displayed. These included the flags of jihadist terrorist groups al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, of pre-revolutionary Iran, and separatist emblems for Somaliland and Catalonia.

Sandwiched between the flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Catalan Estelada was flag No 29, a flag actively prohibited from being displayed at the biggest sporting event on the planet. The flag of Sealand.


If your internet curiosity/boredom has hit a certain threshold at any time over the past 25 years, you may well have found yourself some way down the rabbit hole that is the story of the Principality of Sealand. If not — and I really do hope not because it’s amazing to discover for the first time — please, please read the next few paragraphs.

Firstly, this is Sealand…

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
The Principality of Sealand: formed in 1967 (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

It sits six nautical miles off the coast of Suffolk, about 60 feet above the North Sea, its total surface area is barely half the size of a football pitch (or, in traditional terms, 0.00002% the size of Wales) and, since September 2, 1967, has claimed independence from the United Kingdom.

HM Fort Roughs, to give it its original name (and the name the UK government continues to insist on using) was a World War II naval fort, installed in 1942 to protect the Thames Estuary from the Luftwaffe with radar-guided anti-aircraft guns. By the mid-1950s, long after the war had ended, the fort had been abandoned.

Then, in 1967, the first lines of a frankly incredible story were written. Paddy Roy Bates, a former British army major turned pirate radio operator — who had already been evicted from another nearby installation — hauled himself to the top of Fort Roughs’ concrete towers and, together with his wife Joan and two children, declared independence for the Principality of Sealand.

In the ensuing 56 years, Sealand has survived a succession of threats to its existence. In 1968, charges were brought against Bates and his son (full title: Prince Michael of Sealand) after shots were fired from an automatic pistol across the bows of a boat of some attempted invaders. Both were acquitted after the judge ruled Sealand was outside of the UK’s jurisdiction. This, they deemed, was their moment of territorial validation.

Ten years later came Sealand’s Waterloo, its Alamo, its Vietnam: a German business associate (and Sealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs) led an armed coup, taking Prince Michael hostage, only for Prince Roy to launch a swift and decisive counter-offensive via a helicopter piloted by a James Bond film stuntman. The invaders were held in a prison cell deep in one of Sealand’s imposing concrete towers while, as Prince Michael puts it in his rollicking 2015 memoir Holding the Fort, “a row of Dutch warships anchored a few hundred yards to the east and a row of German warships anchored a few hundred yards to the west”.

There has been a near-devastating fire, a request for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to be given diplomatic sanctuary, an astronomical offer (rumored to be from Aristotle Onassis) to buy Sealand outright, an attempt to put it on the property market for £750million and a failed venture around the turn of the millennium to house some internet servers for offshore business and gambling companies. In 1987, the UK exercised its right under the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles. Sealand simply did the same.

In short, Sealand is no stunt. But, amid the proprietorial posturing, the quasi-legal Latin of res derelictae and terra nullius, the issuing of official currency and stamps, the side hustle of selling noble titles online (becoming a duke or duchess will set you back £499.99, but you can be a lord/lady for a mere £24.99), it gets less easy to see where the sincere conviction ends and the novelty begins. For 56 years, the Principality of Sealand has — not entirely quietly — gone about its business.

Ed Stubbs did not grow up surrounded by the gale-force desolation of the North Sea. He is from a Surrey town called Godalming, the sort you are legally obliged to describe as “leafy”.

Stubbs, 31, is just a single piece of the Sealand national football team jigsaw, but he is a crucial one: the most successful football manager in Sealand’s history, with a win rate of 71.4 percent. A proud achievement?

 “Yeah, I guess so,” Stubbs tells The Athletic, perhaps sensing the question could never be a completely serious one. “It’s a nice quirk… I don’t know who created that part of Wikipedia but I’ll be sad the day it gets removed.”

Stubbs is technically still the manager, the fourth man to have Sealand’s hopes rest on his shoulders. In fact, the occasionally confused journey the national team has been on can be tidily summarized just by their managerial line of succession:

  • Christian Olsen, 2003-04:A Danish hotel manager who convinced Prince Michael to allow the over-40s team of fifth-tier Vestbjerg IF represent Sealand on the world stage. This false start of an era began and ended with a 2-2 draw against Finnish archipelago outfit Åland and the frankly sensational words in an official Sealand government statement that “it is hoped to be able to arrange a showdown with Tibet”. Sadly, this fixture — on paper, the greatest football fixture ever mooted — did not materialize.
  • Neil Forsyth, 2009-13:A Scottish author and screenwriter (most recently behind BBC series The Gold, the story of the 1983 Brink’s-Mat heist), whose connections eventually brought about Sealand caps for actors, a former Premier League defender, David Beckham’s best mate, Kieran Gibbs’ brother, and an Olympic high-jumper, among many others.
  • Julian Dicks, a 2013:The former West Ham hard man and penalty-kick annihilator was plucked from the Essex non-League scene to lead a now celebrity-less Sealand to their first cup competition, the Tynwald Hill Tournament on the Isle of Man. Dicks’ particular expertise was showcased in his role in breaking up a 14-man melee in an 8-0 defeat to relative non-FIFA heavyweights Occitania, although some national pride was salvaged with a 2-1 win against the Channel Islanders of Alderney.

While Dicks was paid quite handsomely for his stint, Stubbs — much like Olsen and Forsyth — was lured in largely by his own curiosity.

“It was a result of scouring the internet and stumbling across Sealand. From that, you find out about the royal family and the rest of it…”

In the spring of 2012, with Forsyth installed in a unique hybrid role of player-manager-president, Sealand was ready to launch themselves ‘officially’ into international football. But how do you form a national football team for a place with a population often as low as two and who nobody recognizes as a country anyway?

The recruitment began in earnest. Forsyth delved into his industry contacts book for Royle Family actor Ralf Little (who had played a handful of games at the semi-professional level) and, to skipper the side, former Bolton Wanderers and Southampton defender Simon Charlton. The 40-year-old promptly went off injured just minutes into his debut.

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
The first official Sealand team line up before their game against the Chagos Islands in 2012 (Photo: Sealand FA)

“It was a very easy pitch to get me involved,” says Little. “Neil was like, ‘Listen, how would you like to play in an international fixture? Just bear with me, there’s this place called Sealand and I’m the president of their FA.’

“And I was like, ‘I’m listening… so where are we going? Where do we play our home games? Do we play in Sealand? And he went, ‘Well, we would, but the snag is that there’s not actually enough land to fit a football pitch on’.”

After being “inundated by offers from around the world from prospective players”, Sealand’s government also offered two places in the squad to supporters who had bought a ticket for the game, pending an analysis of their “footballing CV” by “our Management Committee”.

Stubbs, meanwhile, took on the job of fixer, arranging for the game to be played at Godalming Town’s Wey Court ground and, plucked from the messageboards of the non-FIFA community, some remarkable opponents: the Chagos Islands.

If Sealand’s history was, to put it mildly, one of strident opportunism, the Chagossians had a more heavyweight tale to tell. Their people had once lived on an archipelago in the Indian Ocean before being forcibly uprooted by the British government in the early 1970s for the purposes of installing a US naval base on the island of Diego Garcia. A rollercoaster series of court rulings and appeals eventually upheld a ban on them ever returning to their homeland, although they were granted UK passports in 2004, leading to a Chagossian community settling in Sussex now more than 3,000 strong.

While the Chagossians had a pan-generational injustice to shine a light on, Sealand just needed a goalkeeper. In came retired former Scotland Under-21 international Derek Stillie, whose most recent action had been getting relegated to League Two with Gillingham four years earlier. In the lead-up to the game, once the UK media had caught wind of the plans, Stillie and Forsyth took the only available route to Sealand — that is, being winched up on a seat, 60 feet above the crashing waves — to pelt some plastic footballs into the North Sea for a BBC news report. Curiosity levels were rising.

The reality — and, let’s face it, the absurdity — of this situation properly hit home for Little as the teams lined up on the pitch on an overcast Saturday afternoon in Godalming. From the humble PA system blared E Mare Libertas (From the Sea, Freedom), the national anthem composed by Basil Simonenko (who later unsuccessfully applied to represent Great Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest with an entry called “#lovinglife”).

“When the Sealand national anthem was playing — which probably would have been the first time I’d heard it — of course, I put my hand over my heart and looked extremely serious,” says Little. “It just all felt like that was part of what we were there for, just to acknowledge the silliness… and then play football.”

Unfortunately for Forsyth’s uniquely assembled side, the Chagossians — whose own chemistry had been well cultivated in the Crawley and District League — took it all deeply seriously and were 2-0 up at half-time. “For a fortress nation,” the BBC reporter wryly observed, “Sealand had a surprisingly leaky defense.”

To deepen the adopted Sealanders’ unease, their head of state was watching on. Prince Michael — a seemingly unfazable figure with a face like a slightly friendlier but potentially equally megalomaniacal Phil Collins — offered the sort of philosophical half-time summary you might expect from a man watching his own country losing 2-0 but, on the other hand, who had also personally defended his own country from several invasions in between long spells of solitary seagazing. “Maybe our guys should have trained a bit more… beer and pizza are probably not the right thing to train on.”

Little’s competitive instincts had already taken over from his initial cheerful bewilderment.

“As soon as the actual football started, some of us — by which I mean me — were like, ‘Yeah this all might be fun but we’re here to win a football match and we’re representing a country here — sort of our country’. So, you know, it mattered.

“I was like, ‘We’re underprepared for this’ and Neil said, ‘I know, of course, what did you expect?’ We lost 3-1, which I was furious about, but the Chagos were actually a decent team, I couldn’t believe it. They were all very sharp.”

Three months later, a nevertheless emboldened Sealand squad — bolstered, in a way, by sometime EastEnders star Matt Di Angelo — undertook their first away game: a tricky trip to the Channel Islands to face Alderney.

“We all flew out on this tiny yellow propellor plane,” Little recalls. “I thought it was really good fun. I was peering out the window of this bumpy, tiny little aircraft and a few of the other players were absolutely bricking it, going, ‘Are we even gonna make it to the game?’”

Sealand claimed a bruising 1-1 draw on the windswept island before winning an impromptu penalty shootout — “We’re our own country, we can do what we like,” Little points out — for a first taste of victory in their brief international football history.

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
Sealand – including Stubbs (right) – celebrate a penalty shootout win on the island of Alderney (Photo: Sealand FA)

Little’s spell as Sealand’s talisman and captain came to an end with a rematch against Alderney at Godalming in 2013 — and Sealand’s first actual win.

Does a little bit of Sealand remain in Little’s heart after representing a self-declared independent state formed, if Prince Michael’s accounts are to be believed, in violent circumstances?

“Every now and again I stop and just the sheer silliness of it will make me laugh,” says Little. “Neil and I put our heads together, over a pint, and thought: ‘Do you reckon there’s some sort of dramatized version of the Sealand story?’ I’d be amazed if Neil doesn’t do it eventually.”

“But we didn’t all get together before the first game and go, ‘I think it’s really important that we all know the history of what’s going on here’. We were all like, ‘OK, I’ll see you on Sunday at two’.”

But the ongoing puzzle of whether this was a serious footballing pursuit or just an attention-grabbing exercise for an increasingly media-savvy geopolitical novelty targeted at the sort of people who still proudly own a Breaking Bad “Los Pollos Hermanos” T-shirt was about to come to a head — and what Stubbs calls “the split”.

Around 2013-14, Stubbs says, “was the point where the Sealand team that had been run by Neil kind of forks. There was the national team and then there was this sort of celebrity thing, which I think was Neil’s idea all along”.

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
Sealand’s official mascot: a seal (Photo: Sealand FA)

That pursuit of the biggest possible names unraveled into a baffling range of tenuous celebrities. That list of names who would now represent Sealand’s “All Stars” is beyond even your-boys-took-a-hell-of-a-beating territory: David Beckham’s one-time business manager Dave Gardner, 1994 European indoor high jump champion Dalton Grant, former Liverpool defender John Scales, boxer Joe Calzaghe, rugby player Ugo Monye, Olympic rowing gold-medallist Mark Hunter, ex-Chelsea midfielder Jody Morris, a man presumably with a real name but who I can physically only bring myself to refer to as “Ste from Hollyoaks” and — perhaps the ultimate departure from the true spirit of the Sealand national football team — comedian Jack Whitehall.

While this offshoot Sealand squad weren’t necessarily a celebrity hobby, twice playing a Fulham All-Stars team to raise money for a children’s hospice charity, they did little to help the case for becoming recognized by the non-FIFA football community. The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (or CONIFA) rejected at least one application to join and its strict membership criteria suggest the prospect of Sealand ever gaining the footballing status of Cornwall, Sardinia or Tibet is, at best, remote.

Stubbs accepts this. “I think, to be honest, Sealand as a concept betrays the spirit of CONIFA, frankly. Jokes aside, there are teams and people there that have a real serious story, they’re not recognized or they’re having their independence suppressed by a higher power. And, you know, some oil rig from the North Sea comes in with people who have no connection to their celebrities… it does devalue things.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, a separate Sealand XI were spreading their wings. A squad comprised of Stubbs, his friends, and an unconnected faction of Essex-based players recruited by a certificate-toting, fully-paid-up Sealand baron called Chay Press traveled to the Isle of Man for the Tynwald Hill Tournament. A distinct step up in non-FIFA international standard, Baron Press brokered a deal for Julian Dicks to become head coach for the three games against Occitania, Alderney, and a team representing the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
Julian Dicks addresses the Sealand team at the Tynwald Hill Tournament in 2013 (Photo: Sealand FA)

Dicks proved a divisive figure, although when pressed on that by The Athletic, Prince Liam of Sealand — a sincerely proud one-cap wonder and a third-generation Sealander — offers a diplomatic account.

“Julian brought with him a wealth of knowledge of experience… his dressing-room methods were perceived by parts of the team as somewhat abrasive and direct but, on the whole, he had a positive impact.”

Three games and 14 conceded goals later, Dicks’ spell was over and Stubbs’ golden era of 2014 took hold. The Chagossians were trounced 4-2 at Godalming, almost two years after their first meeting before a European tour took Sealand to Switzerland to face Raetia (a 6-1 win) and to Italy’s far north for a ding-dong 3-2 win over fellow unrecognized microstate Seborga.

It was after that game, just across the border in Monte Carlo, that the Sealand national team finally made an international statement, their equivalent of England’s pre-Euro ’96 “dentist’s chair” episode in Hong Kong, and almost ended up embroiled in a principality-vs-principality war.

“We’d finished the tour by that point and we got, as you can imagine, very drunk. It was a bit of a scramble to get to the station the next day to get the train and Sam Churchman (the joint-most capped player in Sealand history, a man presumably burdened with a nation’s expectations) was in charge of the kit in some bin bags.

“He left it on the platform at Monte Carlo station. At the airport in Nice a couple of days later, we eventually found out that it had been destroyed by the Monaco police because they feared it was some sort of bomb.”

It is now eight and a half years since the Sealand national team, in any of its guises, represented Prince Michael and his royal family. His son, Prince Liam, is keen to end their spell in the international wilderness.

“We’ve recently been in discussions about getting the team active again and we have a lot of interest from potential managers from around the world. There has also been a lot of chatter on our social channels about Sealand’s desire for an exhibition game against Wrexham. So, if Ryan Reynolds is reading this, let’s make it happen.”

Does a 43-year-old Ralf Little, in between filming episodes of Death in Paradise on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, have the motivation to add to his Sealand legacy?

“Why not? Yeah, of course, I’ve got three international caps and I want more. I’m their captain!”

Sealand, The National Football Team From A Country Half The Size Of A Football Pitch
Sealand’s glorious isolation (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

I ask Stubbs — who has been Sealand’s footballing standard-bearer across the continent — what he would consider his dream opposition for any reboot.

“The one fixture I always wanted to arrange and didn’t was Monaco (the national team, rather than its club representatives in France’s Ligue 1). I got close a couple of times. I think, when you’re in the lower rungs of non-FIFA football, that’s what you aspire to: the more real teams.”

So they’re the Holy Grail for Sealand? “Yeah, or the Vatican.”

Prince Liam is unmoved by the story of Sealand’s flag being banned at the World Cup in 2018, although at this point the relentless formality of his statements starts to betray a tongue permanently in his micronation’s cheek.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention — we weren’t aware of this until now. This is a highly political statement and we will wear it as a badge of honor. This will also serve as a nice reminder to the Sealand community to pack their Sealand flags when attending their next international fixture.”

Not that football is Sealand’s primary outlet for international attention anymore: the Sealand Seahawks American football team have played exhibition games in Iceland, France, and Dublin in recent months, while honorary Sealander Lloyd Weema finished 16th at the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland last August.

It would be outlandish to suggest Sealand’s football team raises all sorts of questions of what it means to be a nation, about the power football, has to transcend geopolitics and heal international wounds.

But, in a unique story steeped in history, endeavor, myth, jealousy, pride, attention-seeking, the lure of fame, defensiveness, cynicism, and stoicism, how could football not possibly be involved somewhere?

(Top photo: Getty Images, design by The Athletic)

Adam HurreyAdam Hurrey is the author of Football Cliches, a study of the unique language of the game, and is the host of the Football Cliches podcast for The Athletic

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