When Sepp Blatter ridiculed Ireland’s rather embarrassing request to be installed as the 33rd team at the World Cup in South Africa, it was in stark contrast to what had happened 60 years earlier. Ahead of the 1950 finals, also in Brazil, FIFA were faced with a mass exodus of nations with just 13 teams eventually pitching up by the Copacabana. Back then it was the world governing body pleading with Ireland to participate. Incredibly we refused, and wouldn’t appear at the finals for another four decades. Read why in the latest installment of The Brazil Series, a collection of articles inspired by the world’s greatest footballing cradle.
The background to the story began some decades earlier when Irish football’s civil war exploded in the years around the actual Civil War. The Football Association of Ireland was founded in September 1921 in Dublin splitting from the Belfast-based IFA and organising its own league and national team.
A year earlier the four British football associations – those of Scotland, England, (Northern) Ireland and Wales – had withdrawn from football’s governing body FIFA. There was a deep unease about playing international matches against countries with whom Britain had been at war not long before. More importantly there was a growing concern that there was now too much foreign influence in what was, still to them, a British game.
Deepening the split on the island and as if to make a statement, Dublin’s FAI joined FIFA in 1923 as the Football Association of the Irish Free State.
The ‘home nations’ withdrawal meant they didn’t participate in the three World Cups staged before the Second World War. The Free State, however, made its début in the competition in a 1934 qualifier with Belgium in Dublin. The game finished 4-4 with Paddy Moore making history by becoming the first player to score four goals in a World Cup match.
With the end of the Second World War, FIFA courted the favour of the British nations and were adamant they should appear at the finals to be staged in Brazil. They offered a place at the tournament to the winners of the 1949-50 British Home Championship, effectively doubling as a qualifying group for the competition. To further demonstrate their resolve to include them, FIFA soon decreed that the runner-up in the Championship would also earn a spot at the World Cup.
If Irish people can scarcely believe we turned down a place, what the Scottish authorities did still grates with the country’s supporters. George Graham, the then secretary of the Scottish Football Association, inexplicably declared that Scotland would only accept the FIFA invite if they went as British champions. Whereas other nations had to play home and away matches in qualifying rounds, in the home championship, the teams only had to play three games. England emerged victorious and the Scots finished in second spot. True to his word, and to the consternation of the players and supporters, Graham withdrew Scotland’s place at the World Cup.
Meanwhile the Free State, which had by now taken the name Ireland, was drawn in a qualifying group with Finland and Sweden. Up to this point, both the FAI and IFA had continued to claim jurisdiction over the whole island and selected players from both north and south, a situation that came to a head during the qualifiers. With both Irish teams entering the World Cup for the first time, several players lined out for two countries in the same qualifying competition.
The game between the IFA XI and Wales at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham on 8 March 1950 marked the end of an era in Irish football history. The IFA side fielded an all-Ireland team for the last time with Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh and the captain, Con Martin – all born in what would become the Republic of Ireland. All four players had previously played for the FAI XI in the qualifiers and Martin and Walsh had even scored for the southern selection.
Soon FIFA intervened, after complaints from the FAI, and subsequently restricted players’ eligibility based on the political border. Three years later FIFA would rule that neither team could be referred to as Ireland, and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became football entities. The IFA objected and in 1954 were permitted to continue using the name Ireland in the British Home Championship, and did so until as late as the 1970s.
Thirty-four teams had entered the qualification rounds for the 1950 World Cup. Brazil, as hosts, and Italy, as the defending champions, qualified automatically, leaving 14 spots available.
Ireland had been drawn in Group 5 and were beaten 4-1 in Stockholm in the opening game. A first World Cup victory then came with a 3-0 win over Finland in Dalymount Park. It was the first international game to be staged in Dublin on a Thursday and almost led to an extraordinary goal straight from the kick-off. Arthur Fitzsimons dribbled from half-way and chipped the goalkeeper for what would have been an incredible start for the home side. But in his attempt to make sure the ball hit the net Johnny Gavin managed to head over the bar with the goal gaping. Sweden would go on to top the group and qualify.
Scotland’s refusal to take their place at the finals saw France, runners-up in Group 3, invited. Mirroring today’s concerns, though highlighting how times have changed, the French refused to play in the competition because the organisers in Brazil had scheduled their matches in venues 3000km apart and within days of each other and weren’t for turning.
Throughout its at times ignominious history, the FAI’s lust for profit often seemed to override its wishes for progress on the football pitch. Making money and holding on it had always been a problem for the Irish authority.
Before the qualifying group had ended, Finland withdrew from the competition. As runners-up, and following the French refusal, an invite to Brazil subsequently found its way to the desks at the FAI in Dublin. However, the cost of taking the team to South America at such short notice sent the Irish blazers scampering and they too turned down the offer.
As it turned out, FIFA only managed to get 13 countries to travel to Brazil. Austria pulled out saying their team was too young while the Argentinians had reportedly fallen out with the Brazilian FA and boycotted the tournament.
Germany, who would go on to win the World Cup that followed the 1950 competition, were prohibited because of their actions in the Second World War as were Japan. Hungary too didn’t travel while the Indian FA reportedly refused to go because FIFA had forbidden them from playing barefoot.
At the finals themselves, Yugoslavia opened the competition against the hosts Brazil with ten men. As Rijko Mitic walked out prior to kick-off, in an effort to hype himself up, he struck his head on an iron girder and couldn’t play – there were no substitutions at the time.
With so many heavyweights missing, Brazil were clear favourites when they reached the final against neighbours Uruguay. The shock defeat is still felt by supporters of the Seleção to this day.
Today the World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event on the planet. As the 2014 tournament is about to get under way, all the major footballing nations are making their way to South America. For Irish fans the pain is all the more palpable that we are missing out on the great festival of football. Ironically for the successors to the FAI suits of 1950, and as a sign of how the competition now means big business, the cost of not going to Brazil is also hitting them in the pocket, possibly to a much greater extent than it did sixty-four years ago.