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

Comments (12)
Comment by Duncan Gardner 2011-03-23 14:21:54

"the enduring effect his tenure will have on the national team of Northern Ireland"

I'm no fan of Blatter, but there's little point blaming him for the spat between NI and RoI. The latter have simply argued that international eligibility should follow nationality; as they offer that nationality to many beyond their borders (including pretty much everyone in NI), the playing pool is similarly extended.

"there is a growing clamour for Northern Ireland to “tactically cap” players in competitive matches before they are approached by the South"

It's hardly a clamour. Many others have suggested we pick the best side available; given our small size and modest playing record we simply can't afford to bulk out the squad with kids who aren't ready yet.

Anyway, it's not very imaginative (not to mention childish). International football isn't a press gang- you can't force people to play. There must be a chance that they'll sulk off regardless.
Most players eligible and good enough for NI youth and senior teams will probably continue to be picked for them, for practical reasons. Representative football is helpful in getting professional contracts in Britain; NI's teams are easier to get into; individual players may want to stay with their mates. And (unfortunately) some of the NI support and media are likely to continue making a fuss, particularly if the player has already turned out for our full or U-21 teams, like Barton or Duffy.

But let's not get carried away. Two current English Prem players have moved. Fine, their choice. It doesn't threaten our independence in international football, as some more hysterical NI fans have said.

"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"

Ferguson has, variously

a) played only a handful of first team games- hardly a preparation for international qualifiers

b) turned out mainly a midfielder or winger

c) been happy to turn out for our youth sides (plus one appearance in a scratch side friendly in Italy). I'm happy to take that as evidence of his commitment.

"To see another promising player switch allegiance would be a devastating blow to the association"

Er, it wouldn't. It would be someone who wasn't committed walking away. Better then than during a game, like.

"this kind of selection may soon become commonplace"

I doubt it. If we field a(n even more) rag-bag side in crucial games, we'll invariably lose them. Rather making the whole exercise pointless.

There is an alternative. Ignore the current FIFA statutes- they aren't going to change in our favor while lobbies in Africa and elsewhere argue for even more flexibility. Instead, the IFA could seek a deal with the FAI where neither picks players who've already appeared for the other's teams as adults. Over to you, lads.

Comment by Barnstoneworth 2011-03-23 15:32:29

Before England complain too loudly it should be remembered that England broke rank with the rest of UEFA's membership and voted for Blatter to become FIFA President in the first place, on the premise that the European nations' favoured candidate, Lennart Johanssen, supported Germany's bid to host the 2006 World Cup. England gracelessly threw its weight behind Blatter in an ultimately abortive attempt to boost its own ill-conceived bid. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Comment by Jdb 2011-03-23 17:05:42

"Er, it wouldn't. It would be someone who wasn't committed walking away. Better then than during a game, like."

It can be both. That's like saying Holland would have been happy to be without Cruyff in their team at the 78WC because he wasn't committed anyway. None of the players mentioned are Cruyffs but then NI in 2011 aren't Holland in the 70s either.

It's not an argument to force people to play but a country the size of Northern Ireland will always be concerned about spending time and money developing players who will go on to play for other nations at the expense of those who would turn out for NI. Selecting them for competitive matches would, at the very least, force a decision.

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2011-03-23 17:42:15

@Jdb- the opening post suggested losing one player would be devastating. I disagree, both because the claim is exaggerated (at any given point we probably have about 15-20 players at a level I'd judge good enough, ie English D2, Scottish PL or equivalent). And also because uncommitted people in the squad are potentially disruptive.

Holland did reasonably well without JC in 78, as I recall. My favorite World Cup, as it goes.

Comment by The Awesome Berbaslug!!! 2011-03-23 18:26:37

yeah, that isn't blatters fault. That's just an extension of the good friday agreement. The thing is that there is a large proportion of the Northern irish population who would much rather play for the republic of Ireland than Northern Ireland. I've been in Northern Ireland when there is a couple of international qualifiers on, and if you go to a GAA club, the club will be showing the republic rather than the northern Ireland one. I'm sure there are plenty of nothern catholics who would have no problem playing for NI, but I'd say that it would be fair to assume that a player who votes for sinn fein, they would prefer to play for the republic.

Comment by alyxandr 2011-03-23 20:11:09

"ludicrous refereeing decisions" -- oh, nonsense. This was the first recent WC to be ref'd in the Northern, rather than the Mediterranean, style; without their usual pathetic flops and multiple-ground-rolls drawing fouls, Italy & Spain couldn't cope with fitter, harder-working teams (like, say, South Korea). A refreshing change, but not one we're likely to see again, unfortunately.

Comment by finney 2011-03-24 07:21:05

Well this day was always going to come i do not care what church a player goes to or what scotish club(which is always a big issue with some) i will back anyone in a green shirt and now we have a smaller pool of players to pick from so be it.
I will not judge anyone who does not want to play for us,that is up to them.

I am from Belfast and i was born in the Eaat of my home town and was taken to Norn Iron games as kid so that was it for me.
But if someone from the same city or country wants to follow or play for ROI i have no issue with that.

it is about backing the ones on the pitch and not too worry about the ones not there.
identity, belonging and religion and choice of what National Team to play for is down to the individual.

I blame Cromwell and King James if we fail to ever make a world cup again.
And i would also like to say i wish people would stop talking about the pope and the queen,as far as i know not one of them has scored for Norn Iron or ROI yet.

Good luck to the boys in green of both sides of the border.

Comment by Blackmac79 2011-03-24 09:47:55

Here in Australia Bin Hammam has the same sense of infamy.

Either way Blatter or Bin Hammam, FIFA is still going to be the same old corrupt institution.

Comment by madmickyf 2011-03-25 03:31:13

Maybe this would be a good time to consider a united Irish team like they have in Rugby and Cricket? Would get over the problem of choosing which Ireland team to play for.

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2011-03-25 07:46:44

@MadMicky- would you mind trolling somewhere else? There's already a united Ireland FAI team bulked out with English and Scottish players. And it's still mediocre.

Comment by Gerry Hamstring 2011-03-25 16:42:42

I fail to see why the IFA are complaining about a few players deciding to play for Trapattoni's Ireland rather than the north, when IFA scouts have in recent years been trawling every club in Britain looking for anyone with the slighest link to NI.

Their latest 'aquisition', former England U21 goalkeeper Lee Camp would not have been eligible for NI before the latest FIFA eligibility changes, and their present goalkeeper of 10 years Maik Taylor did not even have a grandparent or great-grandparent born in NI.

The IFA are just as capable of stretching the limits of the eligibility statutes as other nations do, how else would they have almost 30 English born players currently on their books at all levels?.

Comment by A Doctor Speaks 2011-05-30 02:23:42

Ha ha, never stopped people from the North being the most rank hypocrites of the highest order.

And of course an AI team makes sense. It's only paranoid bigots stopping this....

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