Ir­ish football’s divi­sion more than ever looks an anachro­nism

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Brian O’Con­nor

There’s enough divi­sion about this Christ­mas to make sea­son’s greet­ings of good­will sound hol­low. So with ac­cord at a premium, and a New Year around the cor­ner, how good a time is it for Ir­ish soc­cer to grow up and unite.

Ar­gu­ing for an All-Ire­land football team is a crusty old trope. And wedg­ing it into a Christ­mas con­text of peace and har­mony risks mawk­ish­ness.

But there’s a rare and hard-headed op­por­tu­nity now to put a football amal­ga­ma­tion be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic prop­erly front and cen­tre on the sport­ing agenda.

Eng­land’s mis­for­tune is tra­di­tion­ally Ire­land’s op­por­tu­nity and this mod­ern Brexit cri­sis of English na­tion­al­ism rep­re­sents a chance for some pos­i­tive Ir­ish sport­ing unity.

Old bat­tle lines have got blur­rier. So have ideas of cul­ture and pre­sump­tions of eco­nomic self-in­ter­est. It is in a fraught at­mos­phere in so many other as­pects that a chance to forge a new football iden­tity on this is­land seems an ad­mirably pos­i­tive and out­ward-look­ing move.

To die-hards on ei­ther side of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide – and maybe on the re­spec­tive boards of the Football As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land and the Ir­ish Football As­so­ci­a­tion – such am­bi­tion will no doubt sound both un­re­al­is­tic and un­wanted.

But, on the old bull­dog ba­sis that no good cri­sis should ever be al­lowed go to waste, there’s scope here to re­mind those in charge of of soc­cer’s strange po­si­tion in Ir­ish sport.

There are long-held and bit­terly en­trenched rea­sons for divi­sion of course, ever since the FAI was set up af­ter a split from the Belfast-based IFA al­most a cen­tury ago.

Football’s pol­i­tics sub­se­quently, and inevitably, got en­snared in wider ques­tions of en­trenched iden­tity, most no­tably dur­ing the Trou­bles when any amount of ugly bag­gage got heaped onto the beau­ti­ful game.

Ex­tin­guished hope

Even at the height of the prob­lems though the as­pi­ra­tion to­wards football unity al­ways ex­isted. So did a sus­pi­cion that there was a lot more will­ing­ness among the larger football com­mu­nity than among of­fi­cials to try and edge to­wards it.

The most graphic ex­am­ple of that re­mains the Sham­rock Rovers XI that took on the world cham­pi­ons Brazil in 1973. John Giles and Derek Dougan’s ini­tia­tive pro­vided a glimpse of what might be, not just football-wise, but, cru­cially, in sym­bolic terms too.

At the time ap­par­ently both asso­ciations were more open to the amal­ga­ma­tion than gen­er­ally be­lieved. Ul­ti­mately though hope was ex­tin­guished by a con­flict that con­tin­ued for decades and which, for football, reached a nadir with the 1994 World Cup qual­i­fier in Wind­sor Park.

Even then the con­trast be­tween football and how a wide range of other sports op­er­ated on an All-Ire­land ba­sis was strik­ing. Now, in a con­text of po­lit­i­cal flux where old cer­tain­ties look to be more mal­leable than ever be­fore, con­tin­u­ing divi­sion looks ob­sti­nate, unimag­i­na­tive and self-de­feat­ing.

The plusses to Ir­ish rugby’s all-is­land ba­sis are cur­rently high­lighted by an out­stand­ing team. But even when Ire­land’s fortunes on the field were mired in medi­ocrity there was al­ways the deeper con­text of how stand­ing to­gether stood for some­thing a lot more hope­ful than stand­ing apart.

The sym­bol­ism of that was also ap­par­ent dur­ing the Ir­ish women’s hockey team’s progress to this year’s World Cup fi­nal. Given a story to en­gage with the out­pour­ing of pop­u­lar sup­port came from ev­ery as­pect of the sport­ing spec­trum, North and South.

A huge range of sports in Ire­land op­er­ate on an all-is­land ba­sis. Cricket, box­ing, rac­ing and golf man­age to ac­com­mo­date dif­fer­ent cul­tural iden­ti­ties; yet Ir­ish soc­cer re­mains di­vided, even at a time when di­vid­ing scarce re­sources looks a wil­ful self-in­dul­gence.

Of course it’s not hard to see why those at the top of the FAI and IFA might be re­luc­tant to change things. Chop­ping down a greasy pole you’ve spent a ca­reer climb­ing is not an urge one as­so­ciates with any kind of of­fi­cial­dom.

There’s irony too in Uefa’s de­ci­sion to ex­pand the num­ber of teams to qual­ify for the 2020 Euro­pean cham­pi­onships to 24. Fifa’s plans to up num­bers at the 2026 World Cup to 48 is also en­cour­ag­ing the sta­tus quo with smaller na­tions more hope­ful of qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

Unloved child

But there’s more to this than the head­line-grab­bing in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion. Do­mes­tic football con­tin­ues to be an unloved child on both sides of the bor­der with core sup­port no­table for its pas­sion but also its scarcity.

No one can rea­son­ably ar­gue an All-Ire­land league is some sil­ver bul­let for the do­mes­tic game’s woes. But it’s a tough to ar­gue against two sep­a­rate leagues bat­tling for the at­ten­tion of a mostly dis­in­ter­ested pub­lic on one small is­land be­ing any­thing but a self-in­flicted in­jury.

Achiev­ing change isn’t straight­for­ward. His­tor­i­cal bag­gage can’t be just flung out and for­got­ten. There’s cer­tainly an el­e­ment of tur­keys vot­ing for Christ­mas about ad­min­is­tra­tive bod­ies giv­ing up power. And those who might con­sider change may look at some of those push­ing the idea and baulk.

But this isn’t some huge rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept ei­ther. The big­gest hur­dle is the very Brexit mat­ter of iden­tity. But iden­tity is fluid.

Rory McIlory’s mem­o­rable as­ser­tion that he feels more North­ern Ir­ish than Ir­ish or Bri­tish got a lot of peo­ple in a stew. In re­al­ity it was a sim­ple ac­knowl­edge­ment of re­al­ity, a de­fi­ant ges­ture to those de­ter­mined to pi­geon-hole him. And it doesn’t stop McIl­roy cheer­ing on Ire­land’s rugby team.

That’s what’s ul­ti­mately so dispir­it­ing about reluc­tance to ad­dress Ir­ish football’s divi­sion: it feels a relic of a past long since over­taken by a ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish sports fans who don’t re­quire flag wav­ing to feel that they be­long.

There are sound football rea­sons for ad­dress­ing this. The idea of an is­land with such a rel­a­tively small pick con­tin­u­ing to sub-di­vide that pick is il­log­i­cal.

But football in Ire­land is al­ways more than just about football. And at a time of such in­ward-look­ing anx­i­ety how hope­ful and timely a sig­nal would it be to fo­cus on progress to­wards unity rather than sep­a­ra­tion.

This mod­ern Brexit cri­sis of English na­tion­al­ism rep­re­sents a chance for some pos­i­tive Ir­ish sport­ing unity

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