Ireland’s national football question has always been a divisive issue.
It’s a question which has frequently evoked not just sporting rivalry, but impassioned and trenchant opinions from political and religious establishments alike since the inception of association football on this island.
Many argue that merging our national teams simply isn’t a viable option. Given the difficult relationship between the north and south since partition, certain aspects either side of the border say that any potential amalgamation of the two associations would be impractical and even dangerous.
However, a significant element would tend to disagree, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up their position.
To say that both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland national teams are underperforming at the moment would be an understatement.
Having both endured a calamitous qualifying campaign for World Cup 2014, large elements of support are urging root-and-branch reform to ensure a swift return to our more competitive days of yore.
But while pundits continue to carefully tiptoe around the substantial issues behind our teams’ failures, others point to the real impracticalities that exist within the current system.
For a region with just over six million inhabitants to expect to field two top-class international sides is nothing short of ludicrous. With neither of the Irish sides now troubling the top 50 of the world rankings, surely now is the time to pool our resources and reinstate some pride in the green of Ireland.
Of course, this difficult history to which I’ve alluded means that many are reluctant to the idea of an amalgamation. But the simple fact is that it works for virtually every other sport- rugby, GAA, cricket, hockey, golf- so why shouldn’t the leading lights in football subscribe?
Tug of War
For one thing, it would at least negate the diplomatic issues that have plagued north-south relations recently. No longer would we be subjected to the unedifying spectacle of an international tug of war over our alleged future stars, as in the high-profile cases of Shane Duffy and Marc Wilson.
Instead, the new national side would be able to reap the abundance of talent that resides amongst the ranks of both the IFA and the FAI without such debacles about allegiance.
The issue of team cohesion is also hugely overstated.
Various members of the current Northern Ireland setup already hold a Republic passport, and given the collective home nations approach of recent years- poaching any talent with a tenuous connection to the emerald isle from English and Scottish academies- that particular argument is a real non-entity.
One potential stumbling block is the fact that any amalgamation would essentially leave us with a new entity in world soccer, which would in turn leave the new unified Irish team with no points ranking history and in the precarious position of being lowest seed in future qualifying draws.
A New Era
However, a quick glance at the meteoric rise of Montenegro, a country of just over half a million people, in the world rankings since the national team’s disaffiliation with Serbia in 2007 provides ample evidence for any naysayers that a new and improved Irish team could do the same.
Who knows, if the move to unify the two national teams were to go ahead it may even usher in a new age of acceptance and social cohesion in north-south relations.
Just look at the case of the Setanta Cup. Far from causing the disharmony that some anticipated, Ireland’s latest cross-border domestic competition has shown how we can reap the dividends of greater cooperation between the two associations.
In many instances the beautiful game has helped to mend fractious relationships the world over. Who knows, in this age of greater social acceptance, it may play a bigger role than ever in bringing people together rather than tearing them apart.
(Featured image courtesy Steven Depolo on Flickr)