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Will The Real Ireland Please Stand Up?

Our historical and insightful look into the history of football on the island of Ireland continues this week as we examine the squabbling between the FAI and IFA as they battled to attract players.

“It’s not that you shouldn’t be neutral. It’s that you won’t be able to stay neutral.” – Christopher Hitchens.

In last week’s article we detailed the aftermath of the acrimonious split between the IFA and FAI. We reached the end of the 1920s, when the FAI had gained official FIFA recognition and the IFA, backed by the Home Nations, refused to acknowledge the status of the FAI.

Football, a supposedly neutral game, became highly politicized in Ireland. Today we’re going to examine the ramifications of FIFA’s decision to recognize the FAI. FIFA’s decision and the IFA’s reaction led to a curious incident in Irish footballing history and one that is certainly deserving of our attention.

From the 1920s to 1950, both the IFA and FAI selected players throughout all of Ireland, and what’s more, both claimed to be representing the full 32 counties of Ireland. So the question was simple. Who had the right to represent all 32 counties? Did either side have such a right? To paraphrase Eminem, football needed the real Ireland to please stand up.

Was this situation highly political? Yes. Was this highly impractical? Yes. The existence of two governing bodies on the island of Ireland competing in international football led to this bizarre situation.

The IFA, in Belfast, selected players from the Southern Counties for friendlies and Home Nations games, while at the same time the FAI selected the very same players. Thus, many footballers represented both organisations in international competition. At the same time, both Federations squabbled over who had the right to select players. The IFA contended that the FAI was entitled to select only those players born in their jurisdiction, while the FAI threw the same accusation back at the IFA.

The IFA was claiming it could select players from the 32 counties of Ireland, while the FAI should content itself with players from 26 counties, while the FAI was claiming jurisdiction over the 32 counties of Ireland and telling the IFA to content itself with 6 counties.

Somehow from the 1930s to 1940s matters trundled along without much disruption in Irish football. The FAI and IFA went their separate ways, with the FAI engaging in friendlies and World Cup Qualification campaigns, while the IFA stuck to its roots and continued to focus on the British Home Championships.

Matters only really came to a head in the late 1940s, just after the end of the Second World War. The decade of the 1950s was to mark the resolution of the thorny issue of dual qualification of players born in Ireland and also the intervention of FIFA to apply an official designation to the two governing football associations.

What changed in the 1940s? Firstly the FAI grew bolder in its player selection. In 1946 four Northern Ireland players were selected in a squad for the FAI that travelled to play Portugal and Spain. These four players were the first to represent the South, having been born in the North since the split between the IFA and FAI in the 1920s. It was a hugely important decision. The reasons why the FAI decided at that moment in 1946 to select players from the North has never been satisfactorily explained but it was a bone of contention for the IFA.

In 1946, the IFA-FAI split was also highlighted in a comical way as England played both teams in the same week. Both teams claimed to represent all 32 counties and both selected players from the whole of Ireland. Clearly exasperated by the situation, the English FA requested that each association only select players from its jurisdiction, “quoting the International Federation rule to that effect”.

The FAI learnt their lesson and complied, but the IFA would not change its ways so easily. The IFA continued to select Southern players, with the team that finished second in the 1947 Home Nations Tournament drawing from North and South of the border.

From 1947 until the 1949–50, the IFA regularly selected five to seven players born in the Free State for friendlies. The results spoke for themselves. A 2–0 win against Scotland on 4 October 1947 and a 2–2 draw with England at Goodison Park on 5 November for starters.

Secondly, continuing a trend in Irish sport, politics came into the equation once more. In 1949, John A. Costello, leader in the South of Ireland took the decision to secede from the old British Empire and declare Ireland a Republic. This inevitably led to a renewal of the nationalism that fostered the break between the IFA and FAI in the 1920s.

This spirit of nationalism was soon affecting Irish football. In 1950, Northern Ireland’s captain Con Martin, an Irish footballing legend, experienced first hand the effect of such nationalism. Following a friendly for Northern Ireland in 1950, Martin revealed that he had received a “phone call three days before the game asking him to withdraw but he declined.”

Pressure was being placed on the players to choose one team over another. This pressure extended to their clubs as well. When Martin returned to his club Aston Villa after the friendly, the chairman, Fred Normansell, told him that he did not want him to continue to play for Northern Ireland. The chairman said the club had received letters and

“Phone calls suggesting Villa would not be welcome visitors to the Republic if Martin continued his involvement.”

The game became political once more.

Such a situation couldn’t last forever and matters became even more farcical in the 1950s. In 1950, the IFA, along with the other Home Nations, re-joined FIFA to compete in the football World Cup. The Home Nations’ teams were slowly re-engaging with the wider footballing world. This was in sharp contrast to the FAI, who had been taking part in World Cup Qualification games since 1934.

As a demonstration that the Home Nations were serious about re-joining football’s international stage, it was decided that the 1950 British Home Championship would be used as the qualifying group. The IFA began to host World Cup qualifiers. Although the IFA finished bottom of the group in its first World Cup qualification campaign, the ramifications of the IFA’s World Cup campaign were immediate, as the IFA had selected four players who had previously played for the FAI international team in their World Cup qualifiers and as a result had played for two different associations in the same FIFA World Cup tournament.

The FAI took steps to prevent players from what was now the Republic of Ireland turning out for the IFA’s Ireland team. All UK-based players from the Republic were pressured to sign an undertaking not to play for the IFA. Politics and regional divisions pressured the FAI into such a decisions. Players weren’t happy, notably Jackie Carey who was the last to comply with the ruling. Rule 35(b) of the FAI articles provided that players based in the Republic would be denied clearance certificates for transfers abroad unless they gave a similar undertaking. If a Southern player wanted to further his career, he couldn’t turn out for the IFA. Unsurprisingly, the IFA complained to FIFA.

Yet again FIFA was called in to settle matters. Yet again FIFA, an apolitical body, was forced to adjudicate in a highly political matter. As Hitchens once wrote, it’s not that you shouldn’t be neutral, it’s that you won’t be able to stay neutral.

In April 1951, FIFA announced that the FAI rule 35(b) was contrary to its regulations. The IFA rejoiced, but such elation was soon deflated as FIFA also ruled that the IFA team could not select ‘citizens of Eire’. Despite FIFA’s intervention, IFA and FAI teams both continued to compete as Ireland. FIFA’s members grew tired of the situation very quickly. At FIFA’s 1953 congress, its Rule 3 was amended so that an international team must use

“That title … recognised politically and geographically of the countries or territories.”

FIFA was trying to get both teams to accept their territorial and political jurisdictions. Reflecting the renewed nationalism of the time in the South, the FAI still claimed Rule 3 gave them the right to the name Ireland. Matters weren’t easy for FIFA. Eventually FIFA ruled neither team could be referred to as Ireland, decreeing that the FAI team be officially designated as the Republic of Ireland, while the IFA team was to become Northern Ireland.

It once again took FIFA to settle disputes between the IFA and FIFA. The result of all this bickering was the complete separation in the eyes of the footballing community of the North and South of Ireland. From 1953 onwards, the IFA would represent the six counties of the North, and the FAI, the twenty-six counties of the South.

It is a separation that continues to this day, with some notable exceptions. Players could no longer represent both sides. At first glance the IFA had been hugely disadvantaged by the decision but by 1958, they were playing in their first ever World Cup. But that is a story for another day.

We began by looking at the curious case of two Federations claiming to represent the whole of Ireland. It took nearly thirty years for the matter to be resolved and took the world’s footballing body, FIFA, many rulings to get both sides to agree to a solution.

Irish football was never the same after the ruling and it is interesting to note the effect it still has. Think how animated the current Federations become should a Southern player represent the North or vice versa. Ireland’s footballing history is still affecting the game today.

FIFA’s decision to separate Northern and Southern jurisdictions had a tremendous impact on the football in Ireland, as it greatly weakened the IFA’s selection options. This was not immediately apparent, as the IFA went from strength to strength in the 1950s. But we will have to wait for that.

Join us next week when we examine one of the greatest successes and greatest teams in Irish football, namely the 1958 Northern Ireland World Cup team. It’s a story of goals, headaches and heartbreaks, and it’s only available at Pundit Arena.


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Author: The PA Team

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