Off the pitch bitterness souring a golden era for Northern Ireland football

Over the past four years there has been much for the Northern Ireland football supporter to cheer about. Home wins against England, Spain, Sweden and Denmark will see the current crop of players quite rightly take their place in the pantheon of local footballing history. The publicity surrounding the team has inevitably attracted a new generation of fans and the recent comparative success is, despite what some nostalgia-basking naysayers say, a welcome tonic to the heart-breaking era of home defeats to Latvia and dreary matches played to half-empty stands at Windsor. Any prosaic supporter will agree that this is one of Northern Ireland’s relatively sparse golden periods. So why can’t we just enjoy it?

It seems despite being full of good intentions and making many positive strides forward, those in power often manage to lurch cumbersomely from one bureaucratic nightmare to another when making decisions about Northern Irish football. This is a pitfall that seems to be sadly endemic in the modern game. The saga of the proposed national stadium – be it in Belfast or Lisburn, is beginning to make the previous evolution of the ‘new Wembley’ look adroit. Yet one controversy is followed rapidly by another and it is currently the pressing concern regarding player eligibility that has generated furious debate among the local football fraternity.

The IFA feel that any player born in Northern Ireland should represent the national side in Belfast whereas their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, the FAI, believe that players should have the right to choose, citing sections of the Good Friday Agreement and FIFA’s Article 15. Unfortunately for the IFA a recent local television documentary investigating the issue and highlighting players that have found themselves engulfed in this controversy suggested that the association’s lackadaisical attitude to player eligibility has seen it trumped on a number of occasions by the wilier and seemingly more proactive FAI.

It is laudable and encouraging that the IFA is looking to secure the best players for Northern Ireland’s future, but the furore over Darren Gibson’s ‘defection’ to the Republic of Ireland and the embarrassing debacle of Brian McLean having already played at Under-17 level for Scotland suggests that there are those in the IFA who have not been on the ball when it has come to nurturing young talent and researching player eligibility.

In an era when national identity is an enthusiastically debated subject there have been high profile players such as Brazilian-born Deco who, ignored by his national team, decided to gain Portuguese nationality in order to play international football. Given Northern Ireland’s political history and changing definitions of identity the IFA’s hand-wringing stance appears desperate and is beginning to distract from the glorious achievements of the football team. The IFA’s outmoded if well-intended criticism of the FAI is endangering the reputation of the national team by reducing the local game to satire in the eyes of many outside observers. It would be nice to kick off the World Cup qualifying campaign against Slovakia in September without a cloud of controversy darkening activities on the pitch.

Source: Belfast News Letter, January 2008

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