LEICESTER, England – Ireland’s national soccer team manager has said it was “very disappointing” that his counterpart for the Northern Ireland soccer team has brought religion into a dispute over player recruitment for the Irish team.
Michael O’Neill, the manager of Northern Ireland, accused the Republic of Ireland of targeting Catholics from Northern Ireland to play for the Irish national team.
Irish team manager Martin O’Neill – no relation – responded by saying he had a problem with the “unexpected nature of the comments” and denied the accusation.
The dispute highlights the complex issues of sports on the island of Ireland, and the role religion plays in the teams Irish people follow.
Despite the partition of Ireland in 1921, most national sports teams represent the entire island of Ireland, including Gaelic sports – such as Gaelic football, hurling, camogie – and rugby.
However, soccer – usually called football on the island – is divided between north and south.
(The United Kingdom is rarely represented by a single team – the main exception is the Olympics – and England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – or a united Ireland – compete separately in most sports.)
The Irish Football Association, established in 1880 for the entire island, represents Northern Ireland, while the Football Association of Ireland, was founded in 1921 for the south.
This reflected a social reality in Ireland: So-called “English” sports, such as soccer and rugby, were usually played by Protestants, concentrated in the north; while Catholics played Gaelic sports.
For years, the soccer team for Northern Ireland was mainly supported by Protestants, and Catholic players on the team often faced abuse and threats.
In fact, until 1971, the Gaelic Athletic Association banned members from playing or attending “foreign” sporting events, meaning most Catholics in Ireland did not even follow local soccer.
Northern Ireland was the dominant force in soccer during this period, qualifying for the 1958, 1982, and 1986 World Cups.
However, after the GAA lifted of the ban on playing “foreign” sports, soccer became more popular in the south, and the fortunes of the two teams switched. It was the Republic of Ireland that qualified for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.
The lifting of the ban had another effect: More Catholics played on the Northern Ireland team.
The dueling O’Neils are an example of this: Martin O’Neil, a Catholic, played for Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, and even captained the side in 1982. Michael O’Neil, also Catholic, played for Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Despite this more liberal view by the team managers, Northern Ireland is still supported mostly by Protestants, while Catholics in Northern Ireland tend to support the Republic of Ireland team.
Due to the Republic of Ireland’s nationality laws, anyone from the island – including Northern Ireland – can play for the Ireland team. Irish citizens with at least a grandparent from Northern Ireland can also play for Northern Ireland’s team.
Since having a grandparent of the same nationality is enough for FIFA’s nationality requirements, both teams can also draw from the huge Irish diaspora, especially in England and Scotland.
The rules also mean that a player who plays for the youth team of one nation can switch to the other before making his adult debut. (Once you play for one country at the “senior” level, it is very difficult to switch national teams.)
“The FAI [the governing body for soccer in the south] ever only approach one type of player: Catholic,” Michael O’Neill told The Irish Daily Mail, before complaining that some of the Northern Irish players who make the switch are never even picked to play for the Irish national team.
“I hope that Martin and I can get some sort of gentleman’s agreement whereby if a young boy has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21, the FAI don’t ask him to change,” the younger O’Neil said.
“I have no problem with sitting down and talking about this,” said the elder O’Neill at a press conference.
But he denied only targeting Catholic players.
“I couldn’t emphasize enough that I have never chosen a player other than on merit. That will always be the case,” he said.
“There’s no problem having a conversation about underage if that’s the case. But, to actually talk about religion, to bring religion into it – it’s very disappointing,” the Republic of Ireland manager said.
“I’ve played for Northern Ireland 60-odd times, captained them a number of times during their most successful period,” he added. “Not only had we great players playing from both sides of the political divide, but we had great camaraderie, so it’s very disappointing.”
But he did not deny trying to get players to switch teams.
“The player has the choice. I think that is very important and something that’s been overlooked in this. They’re not being coerced into doing this. They’re being asked,” the elder O’Neill said. “And if I was a player and two nations were looking for me, I think that I’d be kind of overjoyed about that, I must admit.”
The spat between the Irish teams comes just months after both barely missed qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by losing in the final play-off round.
The two teams are set to meet in an exhibition match in Dublin in November.