Monday, June 11, 2012

One Football Team For Ireland

The Republic of Ireland's sorry performance in the European Championships has encouraged me to re-edit and repost this blog from a couple of years back...
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Northern Ireland has not played in a World Cup or European Championship since Mexico in 1986 when they were eliminated in the first round and I doubt they will ever qualify again. In the 1980's the Iron Curtain was still intact, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union only fielded one team each and Northern Ireland could usually secure a second or third seed in the group competition. The standard of play and the number of countries has increased in Eastern Europe since and typically Northern Ireland now gets a third or fourth seed with virtually no hope of making it to the World Cup finals against superior opposition. Northern Irish fans have coasted on memories of the 1982 World Cup when we came within a whisker of making it to the semis, but those glory days were more than a generation past and the current squad has more in common with a team like Iceland or Latvia or - God save us - Wales, perennial also rans. The situation in the Republic of Ireland is almost exactly the opposite. Since their nadir in the 1980's the Republic has been to three World Cups: 1990, 1994 and 2002 and this week they began their European campaign.
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It wasn’t Northern Ireland’s fault that football - unlike rugby - became split in Ireland. Dublin was the centre for Gaelic Games on the island and Belfast was traditionally the centre for football. The Irish Football Association was (and still is) based in Belfast but after partition in 1923, a rival federation, the FAI, was established in Dublin. It was nationalists in Dublin who divided football on the island of Ireland, not unionists in the North. Confusion reigned for the next thirty years with dozens of players getting called up by both Ireland federations until, in the 1950's, Con Martin, Davy Walsh, Tommy Ahern and Reg Ryan had the odd distinction of playing for the IFA and FAI teams in World Cup qualifiers. FIFA put a stop to this by ordering a renaming of the Irish teams and a strict division of players: footballers born in Eire would play for the Republic of Ireland, those born in the north, Northern Ireland.
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Northern Ireland still managed to punch above its weight, qualifying for the 1958 World Cup and then producing such stars as George Best, Pat Jennings, Sammy McIroy and Danny Blanchflower, before the heroics of the Espana ‘82 campaign. Northern Ireland fans are a small but dedicated bunch and I have been to many memorable home games at Windsor Park. The defeats of England and Germany come to mind and truly anything can happen there in that tiny, intimidating ground in the heart of west Belfast. But now that the team has been eliminated for the sixth World Cup in a row it is time to face facts, an all Ireland team is our best hope of ever getting to the Cup again and over the long term an all Ireland team might do quite well, especially if it began to draw players from all of Ireland’s football codes.
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The all Ireland rugby team is currently ranked seventh in the world and an all Ireland football team would surely rise in the FIFA rankings. There are of course many problems with this scheme. Firstly, the IFA would be furious at the loss of money and prestige if home games moved to the Aviva stadium in Dublin. Secondly, football is not rugby, rugby in Ireland is a middle class game that no one, deep down, really gets too serious about whereas football is important and comes with a heavy sectarian baggage that rugby does not possess. I concede these points, but one way to win over hearts and minds in Belfast would be to play half the home games there. Loyalist and Republican paraphernalia and flags could be banned completely as they are for Belfast Giants games and then you might even see some Catholic supporters or families with children, rarities both in Windsor Park. Sectarianism is not the universal acid it once was in Belfast and it shouldn’t be forgot that Glasgow is a city divided between Rangers and Celtic supporters who come together to boo England at Hampden Park.
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Another difficulty is that many Northern Ireland players would fight to qualify for an all Ireland team; perhaps none of the current team would be good enough. But competition is ultimately a good thing, you want footballers playing their hearts out to get selected for the national team, not just assuming they’ve made it because they’re on a big club in the EPL. The Irish rugby team grants no favors to players because they are from Ulster or any of the other provinces and that has made the team stronger. Of course the diehard sectarian nutcase ‘supporters’ will never buy into this plan, but the whole point of the peace process in Northern Ireland is to build cross community bridges and displace sectarianism whenever possible. Money, patience and trust, but especially money from FIFA, UEFA and the British and Irish governments could grease a lot of wheels and make it happen. It’s already too late to get the ball rolling for Brazil 2014, but perhaps it could happen before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
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I know some people will say, hold on a minute, it's not just about winning it's about playing the game, old chap. Yeah, pal, that may apply to some sports but not to football.