Close sidebar

Fight for your Right: The FAI Versus the IFA

Our journey into the foundation of Irish football continues as we discuss the repercussions for the FAI following the Home Nations’ decision to boycott the national side south of the border.

“Politics: Who gets what when and how” – Harold Lasswel.

In last week’s article we looked at the great split in Irish football between the FAI and the IFA, a decision that still affects the nature of Irish football. We ended the article with the IFA’s attempts to mend bridges and reunify Irish football. Sadly such attempts were to no avail.

Instead matters worsened between the two football associations as the newly emerged FAI tried to establish itself as an independent body. This will be the focus of today’s article.

In 1948 Harold Lasswell described politics as who gets what when and how. The battles between the FAI and IFA were certainly in this sense, political. The decision by the FAI to break away from the IFA had serious consequences throughout European football and attracted attention from countries in the UK and Western Europe. It was a time of great uncertainty in Ireland, a time of great disputes and a time for intervention.

The divorce between the IFA and the FAI proved to be a difficult time for both Federations. The IFA received substantial support from the English, Scottish and Welsh Football Associations against the FAI. The FAI seemingly stood alone and defiant against the Home Nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

The FAI and IFA stood in opposite camps for years arguing over who was in the right. Who could claim jurisdiction over the 32 counties of Ireland or would the two Federations be forced to live side by side? It is important to note that the newly established Irish Free State and Northern Irish government were having similar issues at this time. Football often seems to imitate or at the very least reflect the political situation of its time. The disputes between the IFA and FAI continued to worsen as time went on.

Can’t we all just get along?

Other football associations at first took little notice of the events in Ireland but soon began to get worried. After two years of squabbling, the IFA and FAI were finally brought together at a special conference in Liverpool, hosted by the British Football Federations, in a desperate attempt to get both associations to meet and talk.

It seemed and was hoped that the FAI would rebuild bridges with its nearest and dearest friends. The IFA also wanted an end to the fighting and presumably the British Federations just wanted a solution so they could get on with playing football. Yet there were no guarantees that the meeting in 1923 would lead to any solutions. There was as always in Irish history, hope, but such hope was misguided.

We must not forget that a year later the infamous boundary commission, set up to agree upon the formal boundary lines of Northern and Southern Ireland, ended without a resolution amidst bitter negotiations. Would football follow the same route?

Sadly the answer was yes. The FAI and IFA couldn’t come to an agreement. Nor could they come to an agreement in 1924 or 1932 when more reconciliation meetings were created by outside football federations hoping to at least ease the bitterness between the FAI and IFA. Intervention by outside parties was not proving particularly useful.

What were the major sticking points for both Federations? Simple. It was about recognition. Which federation would gain the greater jurisdiction in Ireland? Would the IFA be confined to the six counties of Northern Ireland? Was that fair considering that the IFA was the game’s founding body in Ireland? Should the FAI gain jurisdiction of the 26 counties it would be a massive advantage over the IFA.

The Federations were thus squabbling over their own future and future of the game in their respective countries. The further a Federation’s jurisdiction extended the greater the pool of talent available to them. Had the political situation in Ireland been different, the IFA may well have claimed a greater territorial reach in Ireland. Yet as we know, the newly established Irish Free State had gained control of 26 counties in Ireland, something that certainly strengthened the FAI’s bargaining power with the IFA. Such disputes lasted for decades and only really ended with the intervention of FIFA and European States.

Friends in High Places

The fact that the FAI and IFA were in the midst of a bitter dispute for much of the 1920s meant that the initial years for the FAI saw it experience great difficulty in arranging international fixtures and in securing recognition from FIFA. It was an understandable situation. Why would Nations agree to play a rogue Federation like the FAI? How would it affect their relations with the likes of Britain, Scotland or Wales? These were serious issues at the time.

The English FA was of the most powerful institutions in football at that time and had been very vocal in its opposition to the FAI. The Home Nations refused to play the FAI in the early years of the Federation’s life. The IFA’s allies were thus hugely important in isolating the FAI. It was not just the FAI versus the IFA, but rather the FAI versus the British Isles. When your closest neighbours won’t play with you where do you turn? The FAI was in a difficult situation.

If it couldn’t gain international recognition it could quickly flounder. The early 1920s saw the FAI send out invitations across Western Europe pleading for Nations to send over teams for the South to play. The South needed recognition from somewhere. Was it desperate? Perhaps, but luckily for the FAI, it worked.

Help came from a strange ally, the French. Regarded in 2009 as the Republic of Ireland’s enemy, lest we forget Henry’s handball, the French are in fact one of the principal supporters of football in Southern Ireland. Why? Because the French helped the FAI when so many other Nations refused to do so.

Following invitations to play Southern teams in 1923, the French FA sent one of their leading clubs, Athletic Club of Gallia, to Ireland in 1923 to play challenge matches against Bohemians and Pioneers. The importance of this cannot be understated. This was a monumental moment in the history of Southern football. The FAI was in the middle of applying for FIFA membership at that time and gaining recognition from one of the continent’s largest and most powerful States added a prestige to the South’s application.

The FAI had gained a friend in a very high place indeed. It showed the South that it could exist without support from the British Isles. Tensions between the FAI and IFA in 1923 were bitter to say the least. The IFA was still refusing to recognise the FAI as a separate and independent body. What’s more, the IFA had the support of England, Scotland and Wales. FIFA’s decision regarding the FAI’s application would make or break the FAI.

WWFD? What Would FIFA Do?

In August 1923 the news came. Now depending on where you stood in the dispute between the FAI and IFA, FIFA’s decision was either joyous news or an abomination to football. The FAI had been accepted into FIFA and had joined football’s international community. There was however a catch and an important one at that.

FIFA informed the FAI that their jurisdiction extended throughout the 26 counties of Ireland and not the 32 counties of Ireland. FIFA had in effect reinforced partition into Irish football. Why had FIFA accepted the FAI’s application and why had FIFA given it jurisdiction over 26 counties? Was it perhaps retribution for the decision by the Home Nations to withdraw from FIFA in 1920 (itself a fascinating story) or was it a kind attempt to foster football in the Irish Free State? The answer is alas not easily found.

Regardless of FIFA’s motives, the IFA were livid. FIFA had given the rogue FAI the majority of Ireland’s footballing landscape to pick and choose from. 26 counties meant a large pool of players, which meant a better chance of success in the future. The IFA were left with six…six counties! It was a reflection of Ireland’s political situation but it was a highly important decision by FIFA and one that has had great ramifications for Irish football both North and South.

FIFA is proud of saying it is an apolitical organization, but unfortunately for FIFA its decision to accept the FAI’s application was highly political. Regardless of FIFA’s motives, the FAI was ecstatic with FIFA’s terms and dutifully accepted. The FAI was now a bona fide Football Association.

Making Allies

Things soon began to accelerate for the FAI. One year after joining FIFA, the FAI sent a team to the 1924 Paris Olympics under the auspices of the Olympic Council of Ireland (itself a War of Independence creation) to compete against the best that football had to offer.

At the Olympics the South progressed to the Quarter Finals, having defeated Bulgaria 1-0 in the Second Round and getting a bye in the First Round. In the Quarter Final, the Irish Free State took Holland into extra-time before losing 2-1. Not a bad showing at all. It was a solid grounding for the FAI’s first excursion and more importantly none of the Home Nations teams competed in the 1924 Olympics.

This meant that the FAI  gained allies outside of the British Isles who viewed the decision from the Home Nations not to compete in the Olympics with disgust. The FAI’s decision to compete in the Olympics soon paid dividends for football in the Irish Free State. In 1926, the FAI played it is first international fixture against Italy in Turin in March 1926. Italy won the match 3-0 but the result itself didn’t matter. The FAI had gained formal recognition for all the world to see. There was no turning back.

Did the IFA and FAI live happily ever after by the end of the 1920s? Not exactly. But that is a story for another day. Join us next week when we will look at the battles between the IFA and FAI over player selection.

The 1930s to 1950s saw the IFA select players from the South and the FAI players from the North. It was as contentious then as it is today. It is a story of divided loyalties, bitter disputes and beautiful football. What’s more, it’s a story that’s only available on Pundit Arena. See you then.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

Read More About: , , , , , ,

Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team. If you would like to join the team, drop us an email at