Borderline Decisions

The furore over Rory McIlroy’s decision on who to represent at the 2016 Olympics has prompted Diarmuid o hAinle to explore an issue which has existed for footballers on this island for decades. 

Last week, Padraig Harrington expressed sympathy towards Rory McIlroy regarding his dilemma over which of Team GB and Ireland to represent at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. To quote Harrington, “nobody at 23 years of age should be asked to make that decision.”

McIlroy’s case is complicated.  As a self-determined Ulsterman golfer who has already represented (all-)Ireland at World Cups, and been the recipient of support from the Golfing Union of Ireland, his recent assertion that he feels “more British than Irish” was met with anger and not insubstantial surprise. It’s a quandary that may now rob the reinstated Olympic golf tournament of the world’s best player altogether, but it highlights an issue which affects footballers with much more regularity, forcing many into decisions several years prior to their 23rd birthday.

In the Olympics, the region we’ll call, for the sake of this piece, Northern Ireland, can provide athletes for Team GB or Ireland.  The term Team GB actually refers to the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team whilst the Olympic Council of Ireland similarly covers all-Ireland, giving those who hail from the affected counties/districts an option to choose between the two associations. In (non-Olympic) football, there is a similar scenario.

In recent years, several players, including Everton’s Darron Gibson, have switched their international football career from the Irish Football Association – catering for the “Northern Ireland” team – to the Football Association of Ireland – responsible for the “Republic of Ireland” side – and some the reverse, thanks to a slight relaxation of the rules on eligibility post initial international appearances.

On the Northern Ireland side, with a great sense of injustice, fans, association representatives and former players speak of the FAI poaching players, about political pressure being put on “their” young professionals and future professionals to represent the FAI’s teams rather than the IFA’s, and even suggest that there is a sectarian agenda.

The truth is that any player from an area allowing eligibility to play for Northern Ireland also has the option to turn out for the Republic of Ireland.  This fact has been confirmed by Fifa and must surely have been the case at least since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.  When those with a Northern Ireland persuasion suggest FAI scouts are following the progress of young players within the Northern Ireland catchment area, the accusations are met with denials.  Why?  Surely it is the FAI’s duty to ensure that the length and breadth of the island is scoured for footballing talent.

It’s a confirmation that I view the team which wears the Irish shirt – that Umbro Ireland ensures carries the word “Ireland” with no prefix – as representative of all 32 counties, for all those who wish it to be.

In my book I refer to the Irish team which competed at the 2002 World Cup as “Ireland”. This is not an oversight, not an instance of ignorance concerning the official Fifa registration of the team as the “Republic of Ireland”, rather a confirmation that I view the team which wears the Irish shirt – that Umbro Ireland ensures carries the word “Ireland” with no prefix – as representative of all 32 counties, for all those who wish it to be.  This doesn’t concern border signs being erected or Union Flags being removed, it is a straightforward fact relating to the Good Friday Agreement and its rightful recognition by Fifa.

In football, it seems associations talk too much about what they will lose and what is being taken from them.  Yes, when an investment is made in a talented young player, by an association, it is disheartening to see them take a decision to represent an international rival, but, frankly, thems the breaks.  This is the risk assessment taken when electing to nurture talent and no one should stand in the way of a young man following his heart.  Maybe he will find he would have had greater opportunities sticking with those who developed his skills, and by all means this possibility can be sold to a player, just not in a way that prevents him pursuing what he feels is his calling.

Players are not electing to play for a team south of any border, recognised or otherwise. In these cases they were born within the boundaries of the geographical area that the Ireland team represents – and it also represents many born outside it, overseas.  If there is an injustice it is that many players may have been unaware that they had a choice, and represented a football team they felt no affinity for simply to experience international football via the only avenue they thought open to them.  When, in the aftermath of a Northern Ireland defeat in Dublin, Niall McGinn talks of being “a Republic of Ireland fan” and proudly proclaims that he has acquired the shirt of Robbie Keane – as imprudent as this is – did this situation arise through a player making an astute professional decision or did McGinn feel he would never be eligible to play for his nation?

Any attempt to limit players’ options in this regard is out of line and the fear is that, akin to proposals discussed by Laurent Blanc in his time as the French national team manager, young men with a perceived likelihood to “switch” or choose to represent the rival association – inevitably basing this judgement on ethnicity, familial political leanings and religion – will not be afforded the developmental opportunities open to other promising players.  This isn’t the answer.

The talented should be helped to progress and welcomed into an inclusive administration and culture, just as Rory McIlroy was by the Golfing Union of Ireland, and then, when the time comes and if it is required, be respected enough to make the choice which is right for them, whatever their own reasons and with no prevailing sense of loyalty to an organisation that has a lesser pull on their heart.  McIlroy, should he feel Team GB is where he belongs, must be wished good luck and born no ill will – the same courtesy should be afforded to the island’s footballers, whatever they eventually feel is their true international football aspiration.


Diarmuid O hAinle is the author of ‘It Started with a Handshake’ – An alternative look at Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign. Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Saipan and what might have been.

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