Football vs Politics (Spoiler alert: politics wins)
As Preston North End’s Northern Irish born Daniel Devine has opted to play for the Republic of Ireland instead of the football association who developed him at under-age level, it seems I have an excuse to write a bit relating to Irish football for this blog.
Devine is just the latest player of Northern Irish nationality to declare for the Republic after Darron Gibson, Shane Duffy, Marc Wilson, Daniel Kearns and Paul George. The controversy arises as under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the people of NI have the right to citizenship of the republic if they so desire. Far be it from me to question the patriotism of these flip-floppers, but they include some of the most promising prospects the IFA had been developing for their senior team, young players who probably want to play in major tournaments, if you see what I am insinuating*.
The IFA are understandably miffed at this, but FIFA are unlikely to change their minds, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport already said it likes the rules just fine the way they are. If Nigel Worthington had been part of that historic negotiation of 13 years ago, he would surely have piped up to say something like: “But what about our football team? The next George Best might never be seen playing for his country! We may never get to a major finals again!” Following which there would be a brief and awkward silence, before the assembled resumed refining the details of their agreement based on a whole lot of worthy things, none of which were football. There were much bigger things at stake, after all.
Meanwhile on the mainland, Laurent Blanc, the Fortinbras of French football, blotted his own copybook while trying to think about football in isolation from politics. With the high numbers of French-born and trained players going on to represent African nations at senior level, the notion of a “race quota” at French football academies was apparently discussed. Now, whether this plan would have had any beneficial effect on the French senior team or not is a moot point. Blanc should have realised that his bosses, the media, and the French public care more about maintaining a functioning and somewhat integrated multi-ethnic society, than they do about football success.
The inescapable realities here are that national identities are slippery things, footballers are eager to further their careers, and that for better or worse, football associations do not get to decide who is or is not a citizen.
*I am also insinuating that there is a discernable difference between the chances of NI qualifying for a major tournament, and those of ROI. I concede this is up for debate.