The gloom which currently soaks Irish soccer is a logical consequence of a dismal run of results and the disgraceful mismanagement of the game by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). There is no hiding from that.
But the current travails of the national team and the long road back to institutional credibility (which is now being undertaken in earnest) should not obscure the importance of soccer to Irish culture and society.
The highpoints of this historical importance – most memorably, Italia ‘90 – hold a place apart in the Irish national story. But, on a much more mundane level, the love of soccer that has been manifest on a daily basis across the country for many decades makes it an essential part of life for generations of people.
These two things are of much deeper importance than short-term struggles and will provide the long-term basis for the progress of the game.
It matters that the FAI is 100 years old this summer; it matters also that its existence predates the founding of an independent Irish state. There is a fascinating story to be told here and the hope has to be that the FAI uses its centenary to remind people of its contribution to Ireland. Its very existence is a legacy of the divided politics of Ireland, which is – of course – itself a product of divides of religion, class, gender, and national identity.
The original governing body of soccer in Ireland – the Irish Football Association (IFA) – was based in Belfast after its establishment in November 1880. Belfast was the focal point of the spread of the game into Ireland during the 1870s and 1880s, something that was further underlined by the power of its newly professional clubs from the mid-1890s onwards.
This Belfast dominance of soccer assumed a new significance in the wake of war and revolution in the years between 1912 and 1923.
For the men who loved soccer in southern Ireland, the sense that their game was run by unionists was inescapable and in the light of rising nationalist sentiment after 1916 this was to prove a significant point of contention.
This was particularly the case because of the spectacular growth of the game in Dublin in the early 20th century.
The game in Dublin was locally run by the Leinster Football Association after its establishment in 1892 and it was the men from this Association who led the establishment of the Football Association of Ireland in 1921.
This came through disaffiliation from the Irish Football Association in June 1921. The context of war, revolution and – ultimately – the partition of Ireland had obvious consequences.
The practicalities of separation were immediately apparent. In June the Football League of Ireland was established and eight Dublin-based clubs were admitted for its first season.
Then, on September 2, 1921, the Football Association of Ireland held its first meeting in Dublin.
The FAI extended its writ beyond the Dublin area with the rejuvenation and affiliation of the Munster Football Association. And then the Falls League from Belfast also joined.
There were now two associations vying to control soccer in Ireland as both the Dublin-based FAI and the Belfast-based IFA initially claimed to legislate for soccer across the entirety of the island – and neither recognised the existence of the other.
Something of a working compromise emerged in time in terms of the internal leagues and cups – the IFA controlled internal competitions north of the border and the new FAI performed the same function in the south. While the transition to this new arrangement could not be described as seamless and certainly was not harmonious, it was nonetheless relatively clear.
What proved much more difficult was international recognition. In this respect, two bodies were crucial: the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
In the tangled aftermath of the partition of Irish soccer in the early 1920s, the Dublin-based FAI embarked on a tortuous set of negotiations with the International Football Association Board in an attempt to secure recognition. Initial applications for acceptance were rejected after the Belfast-based IFA successfully blocked the move.
Their logic was straightforward: “No country could be represented by two Associations.”
Even as those negotiations were proceeding, the Dublin-based FAI also sought recognition from FIFA; this was duly achieved in September 1923 when FIFA informed the FAI that it was willing to accept the membership of the FAI. That FIFA was organizing a soccer tournament for the Paris Games in 1924 offered the possibilities of an Irish Free State team taking part.
The Irish Free State government had already given its approval to the FAI and recognised it as the governing body for soccer in Ireland. Now, it acquiesced in the inclusion of an FAI-organised Irish team as part of the Irish Olympic team for the Paris Olympics.
Funding the team was the next challenge: a match played in Dalymount Park between a League of Ireland team and Glasgow Celtic drew 22,000 and cleared £250. Trial matches held in Dublin in April and May 1924 led to 16 players drawn from four League of Ireland clubs (Athlone Town, Bohemians, Brooklyn, and St James’s Gate) selected to travel to Paris; the stringent Olympic rules on amateurism ruled out many players worthy of making the team.
The Irish team wore blue jerseys on which a spray of shamrock sat on a white shield. And they walked onto the pitch to the sounds of Thomas Moore’s ‘Let Erin Remember’.
In the end, victory over Bulgaria was followed by defeat to Holland; it was a creditable performance by a team in its first outings. What mattered more than the results was the symbolism of the moment; the Irish Free State now had its own soccer team competing on the international stage.
But that is not, of course, to imagine a harmonious relationship between the Irish Free State and soccer; it as far from such. When the state organised the Tailteann Games – a sort of Irish Olympics held in 1924, 1928 and 1932 – to celebrate the independence of Ireland, no soccer was allowed. Similarly, no soccer was to be played by the soldiers of the army of the new Irish Free State.
And in its relationship with rival sporting bodies the FAI was squeezed by a set of assumptions and ambitions rooted in class and national identity held, respectively, by the men who ran rugby and Gaelic games. The most famous manifestation of this was the GAA’s ban on foreign games, but that tells only a small part of the story.
The FAI made many problems for itself – making choices that defy sensible explanation – but it also operated in a context that was far from easy.
We are in the latter stages of commemorating a decade of centenaries in Ireland – the centenary of the establishment of the Football Association of Ireland in the summer of 1921 is part of that history.
It allows a vivid insight into the divides of the island and the sporting passions of its people – and to look at what happens when those divides and sporting passions come together.