Rugby, cricket, hockey, golf, boxing and other sports have got something soccer does not – a united Ireland team.
The recent outings of the Irish rugby team in the World Cup and the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams in the European Championship soccer qualifiers, were a stark contrast.
The rugby team, containing players from Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster, were supported throughout the island of Ireland, and throughout the world by Irish emigrants. Catholics and Protestants sat side by side in bars in Belfast to shout for their side, just as they did in Dublin, Sydney and New York.
But soccer supporters are divided not just by a border, but often also by religion. Many Catholic football fans in Northern Ireland support the Republic. And many Catholic players from the North have chosen to play for the Republic in recent years, especially after the disgraceful sectarian abuse suffered by Neil Lennon, who is not only Catholic, but played for Celtic – the green half of the Old Firm in Scotland.
If talented players such as Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Mal Donaghy were emerging now rather than in the 1970s and 1980s, they would have to consider whether, as Catholics, it was worth it to declare for the North rather than the Republic. What abuse might they be subjected to? (As well as being booed by those who were supposedly his own supporters when he played for Northern Ireland, Lennon also received death threats and was sent a bullet in the post.)
Ironically, as the North qualified in fine style for their first football finals in 30 years, they did so under a manager, Michael O’Neill, who is Catholic.
The Republic may be joining them in France next year – though first they have to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina in a two-legged play-off.
It is a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the sides. After Northern Ireland played in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Republic were the dominant side on the island for almost three decades, qualifying for the European Championships in 1988 and 2012, and the World Cup in 1990, 1994 and 2002. When the sides met, some of the Republic’s supporters taunted the North’s supporters by singing “There’s only one team in Ireland”.
The tide has turned now, and the North are the dominant side, but it is natural to wonder how strong a united Ireland team would be – if there really was “only one team in Ireland”.
It has happened before, when a side made up of Irish internationals from both sides of the border played Brazil in Lansdowne Road in July 1973. They played as Shamrock Rovers XI, but it was a united Ireland by any other name. At the height of the Troubles, it was a significant gesture of friendship and solidarity.
Only the Brazilian anthem was played, and only its flag was flown in Lansdowne Road that day, but A Nation Once Again was played as part of the pre-match entertainment.
Johnny Giles, Don Givens and Paddy Mulligan played alongside Allan Hunter, Derek Dougan and Martin O’Neill – who is now manager of the Republic.
Brazil, who were the World Cup holders at the time, won the match, but not without a serious battle. They scored four times, but Ireland scored three – the first time in eight years anyone had got three goals against Brazil.
Is it too much to hope that this could happen again, and on a permanent basis this time?
Doing so would not only benefit football, it would help the peace process. It would force the small number of anti-Catholic sectarian bigots who support Northern Ireland to address what their opposition to the Republic really means. If they then decided to support England or Scotland, then so be it. Who would miss them?
The support the Irish rugby team enjoys throughout Ireland is a powerful unifying force, even if sometimes the team itself is not quite good enough.
It would be good for Ireland – all of Ireland – if there were a united soccer team.
Demographics is destiny, and because of this a united Ireland will happen sooner rather than later. It would be nice if there were a united Ireland soccer team to help smooth the way for that inevitability.