Opinion:  Ireland and soccer is a unique story complicated by religion, economics, politics and other sports

By Connell Vaughan and Michael O'Hara, TU Dublin

It is commonly understood that the last time a so-called All-Ireland Association Football (soccer) team took to the field was the famous "Shamrock Rovers XI" versus Brazil tie in Landsdowne Road in July 1973. Though this is true in a strict sense, we do not need to go much further back in time to see the last time players representing both associations were officially sanctioned to play alongside each other.

As part of the week-long Fanfare For Europe to mark the UK, Ireland and Denmark joining the EEC, a Common Market Football Match was played between the three new members and the six existing members in Wembley on January 3rd, 1973. "The Three", comprising players from five of the six football associations (Wales was not represented), won 2-0 against a team representing "The Six" with players from all countries save Luxembourg (though mainly West Germany and the Netherlands). As they would seven months later in Dublin, Pat Jennings, representing Northern Ireland, and John Giles, representing the Republic, lined out together on the international stage in Wembley.

While it is difficult to imagine any serious proposals for a repeat of this clash in light of Brexit - "The One" versus "The 27" sounds unsporting for a start - the advent of Brexit offer an opportunity to reflect on the confused schismatic identity of Irish soccer. As this week's RTÉ documentary Division: The Irish Soccer Split shows, Ireland and soccer is a unique story. It is one complicated by religion, economics, politics and the multiple choice of footballing codes played on the island. The Irish soccer split owes its origins, not to partition directly, but rather the power struggles between Dublin and Belfast. Once established however, the Free State and later Republic team came to represent the new state in a way that no other team can.

Promo video for Division: The Irish Soccer Split

In effect, soccer became an exercise in nation building, albeit it in terms of the Republic, a nation haunted by the existential trauma of partition. Similarly, the IFA has slowly but surely come to be the association of Northern Ireland and its clearest signifier. However, the continuing problem of the anthem for the Northern Ireland team remains a measure that belies the inherent struggle with the very idea a nation and its representation. Yet the globalisation of soccer allowed the independent Ireland and later the Northern Ireland team to be leveraged on an international stage beyond the limits of the "home nations." 

Where other field and team sports have been instrumental in terms of Irish cultural revival and local identity (amateur Gaelic games) and national unity (rugby), soccer is from the national perspective traditionally the lesser cousin of the codes. However, as the only major sport on the island that eventually "respected" the international border, soccer in Ireland negotiates the politics of independence in a more immediate way than these other codes.

As such, the coming of Brexit and particularly its reviving of questions concerning the border and identity reframes the Irish soccer split. One can see this struggle reflected in the Brexit vote, where the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain yet the political class that take up their seats in Westminster (the DUP) campaign to leave. The Irish soccer schism has consistently reflected the febrile nature of partition on the island, yet the desire of both players and fans to play and represent such complexity on the international stage speaks to the healing nature of the game itself. 

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on Pelé visiting the Republic of Ireland soccer squad at a training session in Terenure College Dublin in May 1979

The standard take on this schism, from fans to players and commentators, is to bemoan the split and to hope for some future merger. When the teams are unsuccessful, it is seen as a quick fix to better results. When on the rare occasions that the teams are jointly successful (as in Euro 2016 in France), it is a fantasy of the line-ups that might have been. Or, as is usually the case when one side is looking better than the other, be it on the field or in terms of governance, it is a calculation of what will be lost and "why do we need the other?"

It must be remembered that the two football associations have never been exact representatives of two clear distinguishable states. As such, they cannot fully function as bellwethers for either state as they may do in other countries. In short, they cannot save Ireland. Rather, they are part of the messiness of Irish identity and its history. A peculiar twist of this unresolved outcome was that both the FAI and the IFA claimed jurisdiction over the entire island, which resulted in players lining out for two Irelands in successive games up to 1953.

No one person embodies this messiness quite like Ireland’s most iconic soccer player. George Best was a consistent advocate for a United Ireland team. Yet he earned the title "the Enoch Powell of British football" when he campaigned for the UK to leave the EEC in 1975.

From RTÉ Archives, Gary Honeyford reports for RTÉ News on George Best's testimonial game at Belfast's Windsor Park in August 1988

From player and manager selection, to clubs playing in different jurisdictions, the two Irish national teams have a long history of being partitionist in name only. This schism is more than an anachronism and is positively postmodern. Ireland’s dual soccer identity is something unloved, but that does not mean it cannot be embraced. To embrace it is to recognise the Irish context in terms of what is shared and this has been further reflected in terms of footballing style in the past.

In the British and Irish context, the distinction operates by crudely separating technical excellence on the ball from physical prowess. The former is associated with a continental way of being; the latter signifies an island mentality. In terms of style, the island mentality has often been condemned as anti-football that lacks the virtue of so-called European sophistication. As the chant goes, "we’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland". The aesthetics of style speak to more than just a shared sensibility of the game, but perhaps reflect a suspicion of the European project/’other’ that has been exposed in the Brexit vote and its ensuing confusion.

Perhaps two teams are better than one. Ireland is almost unique in international association football as it has a genuine derby. After all, "come on you boys in green" is a chant productively ambiguous to allow football fans on the island to shout for both teams. Like all great city derbies in soccer (Internazionale vs AC Milan, Manchester United vs Manchester City, Corinthians vs Palmeiras), Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland is built upon a hypersensitivity, or what can be called "the narcissism of minor differences".

Allan Hunter with his jersey from the Shamrock Rovers XI vs Brazil match in 1973

After all, what could be a more trivial difference to cherish than the names Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Irish Football Association (IFA)? While it is not normal to consider an international fixture as a derby and the teams have played each other so infrequently that the rivalry may only appear once a generation, there is in this difference derby-like qualities most easily visible in the eternal conflict over player selection.

READ: Derry City and Brexit: hard border politics, soft border football

Whether this small island can continue to sustain two associations is an open question. There is little doubt that an all-island league is somewhat desirable and the recent announcement of the Unite the Union Champions Cup, a successor to the cross border Setanta Sports Cup, is to be welcomed. But the existence of two Irelands on the international stage is not so abhorrent that many people imagine. In the age of Brexit, it may even continue to be a fruitful and constructive ambiguity. 

Division: The Irish Soccer Split is broadcast on RTÉ One on Wednesday at 9.35pm

Dr Connell Vaughan is a Philosopher and a lecturer in Aesthetics and Critical Theory at the Dublin School of Creative Arts at Technological University Dublin. Michael O'Hara is a lecturer and PhD researcher at the Dublin School of Creative Arts at Technological University Dublin.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ