Monday, June 15, 2015

Everybody Hates Us And We Don't Care

On Saturday night Northern Ireland got a draw against Romania who are the twelfth best football team in the world. This amazing result keeps Northern Ireland 2nd in group F and still on course for qualifying in the European Championship in 2016. The Republic of Ireland were also playing on Saturday and they managed to eek out a draw against Scotland who are similarly ranked to them on the FIFA table. The Republic will almost certainly not be qualifying for the European Championship but Northern Ireland have a very good chance of making it to Euro 2016. You can look at the tables here and you'll see what I mean. You'd think then that Northern Ireland's result on Saturday night would have dominated the British and Irish football media reports on Sunday morning. A plucky underdog taking on the European football powerhouse Romania and managing to hold out for a draw and getting a step closer to the championship? You'd have thought wrong then. The Guardian, the newspaper I read, did a live feed that was updated every 5 minutes before the Republic game and it had live updates during the game. The dismal result of that match was a front page story. No one did a live feed of the Northern Ireland game and the NI result was buried deep deep in the football section. Why is this? 
the current Republic of Ireland manager, Martin ONeill, was of course, a famous player
for Northern Ireland and one of the heroes of the 82 World Cup campaign
The answer is because everybody hates Northern Ireland. The meta-narrative of the Northern Ireland football team is seemingly not a good one because it is connected to Northern Ireland the state. This meta-narrative runs like this: when Ireland became gloriously independent in 1922 a tiny rump of six counties decided to stay with Britain. These largely Protestant fanatics ran Northern Ireland as a kind of Boer South Africa until 1968 when the whole statelet erupted into civil war. A civil war that did not abate until the 1990's with thousands dead. The name Northern Ireland then is stained with the legacy of sectarianism, racism, colonialism & war. The Republic of Ireland football team by contrast is Ireland's real football team that every Irishman and woman and every Irish exile should support. This is the meta-narrative and its why Northern Ireland seldom gets coverage in the press anywhere in the world outside Northern Ireland. N. Ireland is an embarrassment. Of course a lot of this is true and it doesn't help that Northern Ireland's home games are played at Windsor Park the home of Linfield which has been described as the Glasgow Rangers of Ulster. Not exactly a welcoming place for Catholic supporters. And in the 1980s it was a pretty terrifying environment especially in the old kop stand where you could get roughed up by skin-heads (this happened to me) and where racist invective was all too prevalent. To shoot itself further in the foot these "fans" would sometimes barrack Catholic players and so some Catholic players decided reasonably enough that they wouldn't play for Northern Ireland at all and preferred to play for the Republic. So this is a pretty easy meta-narrative to embrace if you live outside of NI (or if you're a nationalist living inside Northern Ireland) - if you want to cheer for an Irish football team cheer for the Republic. 
Unfortunately for a world that wd prefer the N Ireland football team to just go way, the team is actually pretty damn good. In fact in terms of per capita population its one of the best teams in the world. Northern Ireland has qualified for three world cups. 133 countries have never qualified for a world cup and Northern Ireland has qualified three times. What's also very weird is that when they get to the world cup Northern Ireland always does very well. In fact some people have argued that in terms of per capita Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in the world cup finals. You heard me right. Poor, benighted, ignored, loathed Northern Ireland always seems to shine on the big stage. And now we're doing it again. We're in Group F in the European Championships against 4 teams that when the qualifying process began had higher FIFA world rankings than us. We were expected to end up second from the bottom in this group. Thats what all the pundits said. But it didnt happen. While all the media types were talking about England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland very quietly, off screen as usual, just kept winning and drawing against superior opposition gradually moving up the table. 
the current logo. I believe the words "Northern Ireland"
were not inserted until as late as the 1980s. If you know
the exact date please let me know in a comment
There's another problem with the meta narrative of a wicked Northern Ireland team and a cheerful plucky Republic of Ireland team that represents true Irishmen and women everywhere and its this: Northern Ireland is, in fact, the true Irish football team and it always has been and it's the Republic of Ireland & FIFA who divided soccer on the island of Ireland. In rugby, boxing, hockey, pretty much every sport you can think of there is only 1 Irish team but not soccer. Why? The answer is this: The IFA, the Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880. This was the period of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland and soccer was considered to be a foreign game by the intellectuals down in Dublin so they didn't care about it. It was only after the partition of Ireland in 1923 that the Free State authorities rebelled against the idea of having such a popular game as football controlled from a "foreign land", so they set up a rival organisation called the FAI and applied to FIFA for membership. It was the Irish Republic, the FAI, who divided football in Ireland. Sensibly the IFA in Belfast ignored this usurper organisation and continued to select players from all over Ireland for its team. It wasn't until the 1950s when that pernicious and corrupt organisation FIFA noticed that some players were playing for both the FAI team and the IFA team that they decided they had to put a stop to it. They insisted the IFA call its team Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland call its team the Republic of Ireland. The IFA didn't want to do this but FIFA makes the rules. So since the 1950s the IFA has only been allowed by FIFA to select players from the six counties of Northern Ireland. The FAI selects from the 26 counties down South (and anyone who has an Irish grandparent anywhere else in the world). The IFA reluctantly accepted this six county rule but didn't actually change the badge that Northern Ireland players played under until the 1980's when the worlds "Northern Ireland" where added to the IFA logo, again after FIFA pressure. But historically the IFA which is still headquartered in Belfast is the true Irish football team and until FIFA's meddling was the Irish football team from 1880 - 1954. But for FIFA's corrupt shenanigans the IFA wd still represent all of Ireland. De jure if not de facto we still do. We have been robbed of our birthright. We are princes in exile. We are kings over the water. Look at this picture of George Best in the early 1970's. It's hard to see but the only thing it says on his shirt are the words: Irish Football Association.
This is the underdog story that no one else will ever tell you about. Northern Ireland always ranks number 1 or 2 in the FIFA top 50 rankings per head of population. We always do well in the world cups. We always beat teams that are consistently ranked above us. Why will you never hear this story? Because the prevailing meta narrative is too strong. N Ireland wont ever get the respect or attention of the British, Irish or world media. Our burdens are many: FIFA despises us, the Republic of Ireland is indifferent or hostile to us, Windsor Park is not a nice place to play football, Belfast is not a beautiful city, much of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland prefers to root for the Republic team.
Manicheans  (those who simplify the world into good and evil) hate nuance and to support Northern Ireland you need to be able to embrace nuance. The Northern Ireland football team is too much associated with the toxic legacy of sectarianism and the Troubles for most people. It's so easy (too easy in fact) to be an England supporter or a Scotland supporter or a Brazil supporter or a supporter of team USA where nationalism for these nations is easily consumed, packaged, boring and simple. But to be a Northern Ireland supporter you need to have a heterogeneous mind able to do Scott Fitzgerald's trick: the bifurcation of your consciousness into opposing ideas. You need to be able to appreciate Ireland's complex past, you need to be able to ignore the rump idiocy of sectarian supporters on the terraces and cheer for a plucky bunch of 2nd rate players who somehow manage to raise their game on the international stage again and again and again.
All of this is ok. I remember going to a Millwall v Chelsea game in the 1980s and I'll never forget the famous Millwall chant "No One Likes Us and We Don't Care". I found that chant pretty inspiring actually. The whole world can go fuck itself. We're Millwall, we know who we are and we don't give a shit. Intelligent Northern Ireland supporters say the same thing. We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland, we are the original Irish football team, we are underdogs in every game we play and everybody hates us and we don't care.