23 March ~ Irrespective of the outcome of the elections for FIFA president in June – although given Mohammed Bin Hammam’s promise to bring transparency to the confederation we can assume he will be unsuccessful – Sepp Blatter has announced that he will not seek re-election in 2015. The legacy of the seemingly universally unpopular premier will largely depend upon your own partisanship.
In England he will forever be the physical embodiment of the corruption which is blamed for England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid; for teams such as Italy and Spain – eliminated from the 2002 World Cup after ludicrous refereeing decisions – he is the staunch opponent of video technology; while for fans of woman’s football his pièce de résistance remains his infamous hotpants remark.
Much less publicised, however, is the enduring effect his tenure will have on the national team of Northern Ireland. FIFA rules state player can only play for a country if he or his parents or grandparents were born in that particular nation or if he has lived for two years continuously on the territory of the relevant association.
However in February of 2009 – citing 1998’s Good Friday Agreement – Blatter insisted that if a player was eligible to play for Northern Ireland they would also be able to play for the Republic of Ireland.
While the Irish Football Association’s fears of a “talent drain” have yet to be realised, Blatter’s decision has weakened the squad with Northern Irish-born players such as Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy all now free to turn out for the Republic. Last week, Preston North End’s English-born Adam Barton was called into the Republic’s Under-21 squad, despite having already represented the North at senior level (in a friendly against Morocco) on the basis of his grandfather hailing from Newtownards in County Down.
Furthermore, the ruling has presented Northern Irish manager Nigel Worthington with a unique predicament. Given that Gibson, Duffy, Wilson and Cliftonville’s Michael Kane all represented Northern Ireland at some level before switching their allegiance, there is a growing clamour for Northern Ireland to “tactically cap” players in competitive matches before they are approached by the South. (Players can still switch if they have only been cappped in friendlies.)
Ahead of the pair of Euro 2012 qualifiers against Serbia and Slovenia this week, Northern Ireland are expected to line up with the 127-cap pair of Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan in the centre of defence. These spots will soon be occupied by a duo of Manchester United youth products in Johnny Evans and Craig Cathcart, but until then they are left to fight it out for the left-back spot vacated by the recent retirement of George McCartney.
Many fans, however, in the absence of a genuine left-back would rather see Newcastle’s Shane Ferguson called into the squad to replace the injured Steve Davis. Having already been capped in a friendly but without a competitive appearance, the Derry-born 19-year-old is reportedly interesting the Republic of Ireland after his impressive Premier League contribution against Stoke at the weekend. To see another promising player switch allegiance would be a devastating blow to the association.
This may seem like no way to pick an international side for a vital set of qualifiers but in Northern Ireland – where the idea of building a team for the future has a different meaning than almost anywhere else – this kind of selection may soon become commonplace. Jonathan Bradley