Michael O’Neill and IFA Still Failing to Grasp Irish Player Eligibility Matter


The IFA’s former headquarters in Belfast (RossCC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

The manager of the Northern Ireland football team, Michael O’Neill, provoked such a considerable degree of justified criticism last week after firing allegations of sectarianism the way of the Football Association in Ireland (FAI) that he offered on Monday last an official pre-prepared statement – under the banner of the Irish Football Association (IFA) – to clarify his position. His follow-up remarks were clearly an exercise in damage limitation, but they nevertheless remained problematic.

In the statement (the content of which might well have been heavily influenced by his IFA superiors), O’Neill emphasised: “For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue. Nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility should be a football issue.”

Football does not exist in an acultural or apolitical vacuum, however. Eligibility is a national identity issue because national identity is the foundation of national football teams.

O’Neill also said: “The FAI correctly states that it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players in requesting they switch allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.”

O’Neill, once again here, resorted to the use of disingenuous and misleading language. The FAI do not “request” players to switch. It is the players who submit a request (to FIFA) if they wish to switch association. The FAI may make an enquiry with an eligible player (if the player has not first initiated contact with the association) and can facilitate that player’s wishes if he wants to switch, but they cannot demand that he switches.

For what it is worth, it is known that the likes of James McClean, Shane Duffy, Marc Wilson, Rory Hale and the McEneff brothers (Jordan and Aaron) all initiated contact with the FAI to declare their interest in transferring from the IFA to the FAI.

I can only assume that O’Neill has continued employing this sort of loaded and accusatory terminology in order to curry favour with hard-line supporters of the Northern Ireland team, as it gives oxygen to the false narrative that the FAI are acting in an overbearing and aggressive manner, that players who make a switch to the FAI lack agency or autonomy and that the IFA are helpless victims in all of this.

O’Neill’s following profession of innocence was not entirely true either: “During [the] recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI, I merely responded to the questions I was asked.”

It is, of course, possible to attack another person or entity whilst also answering a question. His words need not have been one or the other; either an answer or an attack. They were, in fact, both an answer and an attack upon the FAI at the same time.

And O’Neill actually went further than merely attacking the FAI. He also attempted to demean the status of the Irish nationality of northern-born Irish nationals by suggesting that a “bloodline” to the IFA’s territory was more legitimate or robust in terms of what validates eligibility than a birthright to Irish nationality (and, ergo, eligibility for FAI).

O’Neill also protested that players switch whilst “[t]he Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in [the association’s] club NI programme”, but his desire to have players’ right to switch association restricted until after the age of 21 would only result in the IFA having spent more money on a player whose ultimate aspiration might have been to play for the FAI (if that player does indeed end up switching to the FAI after the age of 21).

Besides, the IFA receive money from the public purse; as the north of Ireland is a bi-communal or bi-national society, a very significant portion of that is money from the nationalist community. As a collective, nationalists are more than happy to see players from our community, who have also been trained with the help of resources from the community, declare for the FAI’s team, which is our national team, the team with which we culturally identify and the team we support.

The following comment in O’Neill’s statement appeared to conflict with his “cautionary” tone for potential switchers the previous week: “While it is a player’s right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player will have missed out on an opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI’s system will miss out on selection.”

The previous week, O’Neill had warned that players who switched faced abandonment by the FAI after switching and exampled Rory Hale and Rory Brown (despite both having participated in FAI youth squads), but, on Monday, he was purportedly trying to make an appeal for the interests of players who are already in the FAI’s set-up to be considered, because (according to O’Neill) they will miss out on selection due to competition from the incoming switching players.

I am suspicious of this purported concern for FAI players. It would appear to me that O’Neill is professing concern for young players in order to win sympathy for what are ultimately his own interests and those of his association. It is much like that old plea, “Won’t somebody think of the children?

Rather conveniently, O’Neill would have us believe that the best interests of young players (in both the IFA and FAI set-ups) just so happen to align with the interests of Michael O’Neill and the IFA.

If O’Neill wishes to see limits placed upon the rights of players to switch association, he needs to petition FIFA. There is no point in pointing the finger at the FAI, as this matter is not a “problem” of the FAI’s making.

It is difficult to envisage FIFA having much sympathy for what O’Neill is saying, however, because it would reverse the trend towards player protection whereby a universal right (for any dual or multi-eligible player globally) to switch association once by the age of 21 was introduced in 2004 with that age-cap of 21 being lifted in 2009. FIFA back-tracking on these sorts of rights in an increasingly globalised world is highly unlikely. After all, the introduction of the right to switch was to protect young players from self-interested associations.

It also must be asked; why should the IFA have some sort of exclusive claim over players aged between 17 and 21 who are also eligible for another association? No other association in world football enjoys such a privilege.

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