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A new football documentary asks: Will we ever see an all-Ireland football team?

Division: The Irish Soccer Split is on RTÉ One tonight at 9.35pm.

“EVEN BEFORE THE country divided, football did”, says actor Aidan Gillen, narrating a new documentary Division: The Irish Soccer Split (tonight, 9.35pm, RTÉ One.) 

Gillen has a link with Irish football – his grandfather was one of the founding members of the FAI. 

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

The documentary traces the formation of the body we now call the FAI, which formed out of the Irish Football Association, the Belfast-based body governing football across the island of Ireland up to 1921. 

Although soccer was one of the few sports in Ireland to split along partitionist lines, it was not the primary vehicle for the schism.

Instead it was a squabble between the IFA and the Leinster Football Association, who were growing used to having some more autonomy amid Great War-curtailed football activity. 

Their justified perceptions of a Belfast bias in the selection of international players and venues for matches crystallised in the IFA’s decision to go against convention in hosting the replay of an Irish Cup semi-final between Glenavon and Shelbourne in Belfast, rather than Dublin, citing security fears amid the Irish War of Independence. 

The Football Association of the Irish Free State was formed, and for a while it and the IFA claimed to be the governing body of the entire island, leading to 39 players representing two different international sides calling themselves Ireland. 

This became unsustainable when the IFA team joined the FAI in the qualification process for the 1950 World Cup, so Fifa stepped in and decreed that there would be two separate teams – the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – and that a player could only represent one of those teams. 

Professor Mike Cronin captures the irony of these times – although the sport had split along the same lines as politics, both football associations “had ignored partition” in their rival, competing claims. 

To that point, both FAs came surprisingly close to reunification on two occasions. 

The FAI gained concessions from the IFA in 1924 regarding the alternating of match venues and other matters, but it ultimately fell apart as the IFA did not accede to the FAI’s request for the chairmanship to alternate between North and South. 

In the 1932 the IFA did meet this request, but the deal fell apart again, this time as the FAI’s demand for a seat on the International Football Association Board – the body which decides on the rules of the game to this day – was rejected. 

After telling the story of the split, the documentary asks whether we will ever see an all-island team in the future, pondering whether the FAI’s employment of Martin O’Neill is the closest we will get. 

Scenes of the riots that marred the 1979 clash of Dundalk and Linfield and recollections of the febrile, tense atmosphere at Windsor Park in 1993 show how far there is to travel on that front, yet the unifying power of the sport – or perhaps more accurately, success – hint at its potential.

Gerry Armstrong speaks of feeling his Northern Ireland team had “unified the country” in reaching the quarter-finals of the 1982 World Cup, while Niall Quinn talks of Jack Charlton and his Irish team being inspired by the Northern Ireland success of 1982 and 1986.

Quinn also remembers the words of the late Northern Ireland captain Alan McDonald, who came into the visitors’ dressing room in Windsor Park in 1993 to wish Charlton’s team well at the World Cup, telling them they would be representing the whole island. 

In the documentary, Brian Kerr explains why he reckons an all-island football team is unlikely in the near-future, while others retain more optimism. 

Nevertheless, both Associations are showing signs of working together more closely. They recently launched a joint bid to host the 2023 U21 European Championships and this month unveiled a new two-legged, cross-border competition entitled the Unite the Union Champions Cup.

Meanwhile, with the domestic game in the Republic in flux, public debate on the state of the game is becoming increasingly smattered with talk of an all-island league.

Last November’s goalless friendly between the two sides at the Aviva Stadium was used to accentuate that relations between both bodies are improving, with the cover of the match programme featuring an illustration of John Giles and George Best arm-in-arm while John Delaney wrote of his invitation to speak at the IFA AGM and the ovation afforded to IFA President David Martin at the FAI’s own shindig.

That the Republic continually gave the ball away once the game started may be interpreted as another gesture of goodwill…and why some fans south of the border would like to see the two football bodies united once again. 

Watch Division: The Irish Soccer Split on RTÉ One tonight at 9.35pm. 

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Gavin Cooney

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