United We Stand?

Friday 30th of July saw the The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne reject an appeal by the Irish FA or Football association Northern Ireland in complaint against International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) allowing Belfast-born Daniel Kearns to play for the Republic.

The ruling could have gone either way. Irish FA president Raymond Kennedy understandably reacted with dismay to the court’s decision. Kennedy said: ‘I am disappointed by today’s decision”. This prompted me to think about the rationale for cross border sports cooperation.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, Irish passports can be held by Irish citizens born on either side of the border. However the IFA have been trying to prevent a talent drain of players and have been arguing that players born in Northern Ireland without family links to the south should not be allowed to play for the Republic.

FIFA’s players’ status committee had ruled that Kearns fulfilled the requirements in that he had never represented Northern Ireland in an official competition at senior international level. Instead, Kearns, represented Northern Ireland at under-17 level but switched to play for the Republic this year and played in two European Under-19 Championship matches.

A statement from CAS said: ‘The CAS panel dismissed the appeal and confirmed the decision issued by the single judge of the FIFA players’ status committee, which recognised that Daniel Kearns was eligible to play for the national team of the FAI.”

Welcoming the ruling, FAI chief executive John Delaney said: ‘Today’s landmark decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport confirms the FIFA and FAI position on player eligibility. The ruling upholds the right of individual choice on this matter for players born north of the border.

Sadly I fear my thoughts on the matter are further from happening rather than closer. I have long been interested in the merits and demerits of the all-ireland potential of both league football and the international teams.

United

An all Ireland team would offer a tremendous symbol of fellowship. Following in the very successful shaddow of the all Ireland Rugby Union and indeed Gaelic games where Ireland has only one team made up from players from all provinces. Ulster players play alongside those from the Republic, regardless of religion or whether they’re from the North or South.

Worldwide in conflict zones, sport has demonstrated itself to be a welcome tool of peace. Soccer, like rugby in South Africa, could use its tremendously popularity on both sides of the cultural, religious and social devides as a common element of unity. Seeing their heroes play alongside those from “over the border” has the potential to shape the attitudes of the young and help shake off inherited prejudices. This move could do more to provide steel to the peace process than any negotiation or diplomacy – particularly in the working class areas that soccer is inherantly most popular.

The arguement that political or religious factions might be a barrier to unity and a team gel is made nonesensical when it is considered how many players are already team mates. The vast majority of players already ‘get on’ while representing English and Scottish club sides. The idea that players would rather squabble than perform at their peak is absurd – or rather, is no more absurd in an all-Ireland context than it is anywhere else. In reality, professional footballers like any international sports star would almost certainly buckle down and compete for their place.  Only fringe and bit part player benefiting from division that should be scared of competition would be likely to offer dissent. There will be a huge amount of attention paid to who gets picked: the idea that prejudice rather than ability will determine things is absurd, particularly in the professional coaching and playing era. Where everyone stands to benefit from a win – who would sabotage their own efforts.

Ultimately, even with political motives aside – combining the talents of North and South would have the potential to improve on the field relations. Neither nation has offered much in the way of potential at a major tournament. Historically, Northern Ireland have had one or two stand-out players surrounded by weaker bit part players. Conversely the team from the Republic’s team is often lacking quality in depth  or the spark of magic offered by a key player. Depite demonstrating a solid offering they fail to provide at key moments where inspiration is required. Returning to the comparison with Rugby, putting the best of both teams together would greatly enhance Ireland’s chances of reaching the final stages of international competitions and must offer the potential to greatly increase any potential to win. Afterall, a united Ireland offering would not be far behind the 10m citizens which provided Greece with enough quality to win not too long ago at the European Championships. Ireland and its provinces have already shown themselves to be world beaters  – only in another code. The talent pool from the island of Ireland is far too small to be split up as it is currently.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to an All-ireland team is the level of rivalry between the opposing associations. Tournaments like the Setanta Cup have had their issues – but then, the Associations themselves have been frightfully troublesome in terms of politcal stability. Notably, although there is neighbourly rivalry now – there is a something patently unifying about being successful. The benefits of the proposed cooperation are long term and depend on management and organisers having the vision to overcome short term prejudices (and possibly a liberal dollop of self interest). Ultimately, a single well run Association with a strong product to support would be far easier to get behind even with organisational and tribal differences.

Divided

Clearly, as can be seen by 200 years of unrest and 20 years of political/ military operations, many people across Ireland don’t feel commonality or fellowship. There is an internationally recognised border around the province of Ulster and as borders determine the make up of soccer teams everywhere – why would Ireland be treated different? No doubt, combining the English and Scottish teams would probably lead to a better squad but thats not something that would even be mooted. Why? Because they’re quite distinctly different countries.  Instead, Unionists will view this as nationalism by the populist back door.

Even without political re-organsiation, sport in the island of Ireland has been politicized and is politicizing. One doesn’t have to look too far in either state to see the iconic Celtic or Rangers jersey – despite neither team even playing on the island. Instead, both sides of the border have a history of demonstrating an ugly nationalism through tribal sports events.

In considering the sporting benefits, it is worth noting that both teams have outperformed what would have otherwise been expected of them. Indeed, it was only a matter of months ago that Ireland took on the French world beaters – only to make headlines with their display of courage and misfortune.  Each nation has qualified for the World Cup a highly respectable three times. A potential outcome of unification may infact be a lesser showing at international fares. What if the teams don’t manage to overcome social barriers? – we could then be turning two relatively successful outfits into one dissappointment.

There would also be near guarantee of further dissappoint and unrest in terms of exclusions. For every George Best or Roy Keane, there is realistically a full squad at each age group of players who won’t be offered the chance to play and develop at an international level. Narrowing the opportunities for players in their country will not only breed resentment but also has the potential to limit players professional careers. The fear from this perspective is particularly evident from the North. Any unified team would likely follow the same blue print as the Rugby Union – here we’d see a squad packed out with Republican players interspersed with a minimum of Ulstermen.

It is already claimed in some quarters that the Ireland Rugby Union is influenced by the greater size and strength of the established republican provinces. There is seen to be an automatic favouring of players from the Republic and marginalizing of Ulstermen. It is a notable fact that representation of Ulster players is less significant than the other provinces. That squad, supposedly the model of success, is also not without its tensions. It could also be argued that disputes surrounding selection, which may be seen to be based on political motivation, may actually make community relations more problematic than less. Sports fans are passionate. This could be a recipe for disaster.

As it stands there are two Associations, as the article that prompted this discussion demonstrates, there is a history of bad blood between the two. The likelihood of administrative cooperation is not a guaranteed – infact the campaign for an All-Ireland league instead offer yet more support for the inherant problems of organising on an all-island basis.

To conclude, there are significant barriers to change – without the political will from the Associations it is likely a non issue. Few in politics outside of Football would also broach the subject.  Little is to be gained for individuals by standing above the parapit to push this campaign. Rugby and Gaelic have a longer history of all-ireland operation – in this regard they were far more likely to have had unification. In respect of expecting soccer to catch up, it is most likely that that ‘boat has sailed’.

It is also rather unlikely that an international body would attempt to involve itself in the dispute of a troubled island. Perhaps the most likely driver for change would be the move toward a team GB. This has already been mooted within the Olympics and non professional circles to replace individual Scotland, Ireland and Welsh offerings. Such a move would be a difficult factor to ‘sell’ within a disperate north. Instead, in an act of consolidation it may be possible to see an Ireland of two parts. An alternative uniting factor may be financial. Neither Assocation has been able to run a successful and financially viable league offering. It may simply become unavoidable to cut costs and rationalise services. One organisation being cheaper than two.

The final driver now appears less and less likely. A Celtic Tiger Ireland may have seen this as a route to more normalised relations – throwing money at sport may have had political benefits. However, with the Irish state purse far from bulging this appears to be a pipe dream.

This all said, in weighing up the arguements I’m a firm supporter of unity. As a republican and rugby fan, it is admittedly less of a challenge for me row behind, but its also based on sound reasoning. Perhaps the best possible situation for Irish football would be far far less teams taking part in a wider European competition – similar to the much talked about break away Champions league. Were there to be a based on a provincial setup I believe Ireland would be more competitive in Europe and in a domestic ‘Celtic’ League much like the Magners offering ‘domestic’ competition.  Such a league would have a far more representative cost base and the great potential draw of Celtic playing in Leinster regularly and Rangers competing in Belfast could possibly sweeten the deal for all sides. So, a good outcome all round but its still not going to happen.

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