On April 18th 1949, Easter Monday, the anniversary of the 1916 uprising, Ireland officially declared itself a republic and left the British Commonwealth. A week later, the national team played Belgium at Dalymount Park but it would be a further five years before it would play under the name ‘Republic’.
The use of the terms Ireland and Republic of Ireland has traditionally been fraught with controversy owing to the delicate political sensibilities here, and the two football teams on the island have been no strangers to that friction.
Since 1882, Irish football had been governed by one association, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association, the IFA. Following the upheaval of the War of Independence and partition, the selection of the Irish national team became increasingly politicised and a new body, the Football Association of Ireland was founded in September 1921 in Dublin splitting from the IFA and organising its own league and national team.
Ireland joined FIFA two years later as the Football Association of the Irish Free State but re-adopted the name Football Association of Ireland in 1936. From then until 1954, they played as Ireland; and since 1954 they have been the Republic of Ireland following the renaming of the team by FIFA.
However, back in 1949, a week after the Republic of Ireland Act came into force, the soccer team lost 2-0 to Belgium in a Dalymount Park friendly still under the name ‘Ireland.’ A first win as the new political entity would come the following month at home to Portugal.
Just like the present Irish team, qualification for the 1950 World Cup, ironically also in Brazil, also involved Sweden as opposition. The campaign began in June with a 4-1 loss in Stockholm.
Echoing Giovanni Trapattoni’s upcoming friendly date with Spain, the fledging Ireland then took on the Spanish in a friendly in Dalymount the same month suffering another 4-1 defeat. The Road to Rio got back on track with a 3-0 home win over Finland and in another eerie refection of today, the next game was a friendly away to England in September 1949.
The match didn’t take place in Wembley however. The venue was Goodison Park where Ireland recorded one of its most famous victories, a first ever defeat for the English on home-soil by a foreign side.
Up until the 1950 World Cup qualifiers, both the IFA and FAI claimed jurisdiction over the entire island and selected players from both north and south under the name Ireland. It was only when both associations entered the qualifiers that FIFA intervened and restricted the eligibility of players on the basis of the political border. In 1953 the world governing body decreed that neither team could be referred to as Ireland for the World Cup and, subsequently, the European Nations Cup. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were born as football entities.
Several of the Irish team in Goodison in 1949 had played against England before while representing the IFA, including striker Davy Walsh who had previously scored three times against the old enemy.
Three years earlier, the FAI Ireland had played England for the first time at Dalymount Park losing to a Tom Finney winner in the 82nd minute.
This time on Merseyside, Ireland struck twice through a Con Martin penalty and a second half goal from Peter Farrell to record a famous victory, at least on this side of the Irish Sea.
Even today there is some dispute in English circles as to whether Hungary’s Magical Magyars’ 6-3 win at Wembley in 1953 represents the first defeat on home soil by a foreign team. The argument is that the Irish side that won 2-0 claimed authority over the the IFA selection, and therefore allowed some to paint them as a ‘home nation’ until FIFA’s definitive intervention in 1953.
By then, as the football team still strove to reach its first World Cup, it had finally taken the title declared by the nation on April 18th 1949.