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Feargal Brennan examines the increase in mixed heritage and dual nationality players emerging through the ranks for Ireland. This has been seen in the squads for recent underage tournaments, as well as the senior side and is a reflection of changes within Ireland, differing trends in migration, new players and their connection with the country and how the Boys in Green are set for a new era led by young players that reflect modern Irish society.
The theory behind the role of international football is clear. Unite fans and players behind the ‘national cause’ every other summer, and cheer on a side free from transfer windows, agents and the negativity associated with club football.
Few international sides have managed the ‘unite’ part as well as Ireland, following their maiden international tournament appearance at Euro ’88.
Stories of Italia ’90 and USA ’94 are etched into the consciousness of modern Ireland as much as any Roddy Doyle novel, Celtic Tiger wince or Ryanair headshake, with younger fans grateful of Japan/South Korea 2002 and France 2016, for giving them a seat at the table.
Intertwined with the highs and the lows of following the Boys in Green has been a genuine sense of national identity, free from some of the hang ups associated with patriotism in other international fan bases.
Aggression and xenophobia have stalked the old enemy across the sea at international tournaments, whereas Irish fans are celebrated and acclaimed for the layers of passion they have decorated tournaments with.
These snippets of Irish people and culture have offered a glimpse at modern Ireland, and how it retains pride in its past, with a commitment to acceptance and inclusivity, as it grows.
These competitions have had a role in putting Ireland in the proverbial ‘shop window’, as a country free of colonial exceptionalism, with the welcoming nature of a country on the rise.
Migration into Ireland has been a growing factor since the 1950’s, accelerating in the 1990’s with the expansion of the European Union and the short lived economic growth of the Tiger.
Much of the migration to Ireland is economic-based, with the bulk being from other EU countries, with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia leading the way.
However alongside the movement of more European migration to Ireland, there has been a unique spike in migration from Nigeria in the late 90’s.
Nigerians represent the largest single African group in Ireland in 2019, and the second largest non-EU section of migration into Ireland.
The impact of migration and cohesion is almost impossible to measure, with numbers telling half the story, but it does appear that Irish and Nigerians have established a bond based on societal inclusion.
This has seen the numbers of Nigerians represented in business, politics and community representation outstrip other migrant groups in Ireland, and the role of Nigeria is now also seen in Irish sport.
Mixed heritage players have become a hot topic in modern international football, particularly in Europe, as France and Germany have led the way in calling up players with dual nationality, to significant degrees of success for both sides.
“This has tapped into young players opting to represent their country of birth, over the country of their parents, a move that has seen new heroes emerge.”
Whilst it’s too simple to say that players of mixed nationality immediately provide ‘role models’ for youngsters of a similar background, it has provided a platform.
Ireland’s youth teams are feeling the enormous benefit of the notable Nigerian migration into the country, with each side from U15 to U21 featuring players with connections to the West African nation.
Michael Obafemi is the stand out name in the current Irish senior set up, after being handed his debut in Martin O’Neill’s final game in charge in October 2019.
Obafemi’s inclusion in the side sparked a new debate which has never been discussed at length with the national side, with migration into Ireland now a factor.
For years, Irish fans have had to shrug off tired jokes from England fans about ‘plastics’, born in the UK, whereas now the FAI are finding themselves at the other end of the discussion.
The path opened up by Obafemi is set to continue over what promises to be an exciting few years of Irish underage development, with more to follow.
Adam Idah, Jonathan Afolabi and Gavin Bazunu are all highly rated within the Irish youth set up and should make the step up to senior football by 2020 – despite retaining eligibility for Nigeria.
Further down the youth pyramid are Timi Sobowale – Bazunu’s teammate at Manchester City – Festy Ebosele, Armstrong Okoflex, Shola Ayoola, Mazeed Ogungbo, Ayodeji Sotona, Mipo Odubeko all eligible for both Ireland and the Super Eagles in the coming years.
The FAI now have a responsibility to address this and react accordingly to ensure not just the future of results on the pitch and the development of footballers, but to demonstrate a policy of inclusion that few would have considered relevant a few decades ago.
Interviews with the likes of Idah, Sobowale, Afolabi and Bazunu have shown their affinity with hometowns in Cork, Dundalk, Waterford and Dublin and the communities they have grown up within and developed into professionals.
A multicultural Irish team is reflective of a country growing into its role as a European power and the examples from continental Europe have shown the sky is the limit when nationality and inclusion go hand in hand.