To describe the eligibility of Northern Ireland born Irish nationals in the context of association football as an ongoing issue is, quite simply, a falsehood, because it is not an ongoing issue. Indeed, as the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) said in a statement issued in response to the recent upsurge of speculation in the media, the decision reached by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the summer of 2010 granted the issue finality, once and for all. I have written extensively about the eligibility issue in the past, for the simple reason that it is something which presents a principle which is important to me, and over the past few months, it is the ignorant outbursts of Gerry Armstrong, the Irish FA’s (IFA) newly appointed ‘Elite Player Mentor’, that have been the subject of my scorn.
Despite the emphatic nature of the finality which followed the outcome of that court case in Lausanne, elements within the media have deviously sought to ensure that the issue remains at the front of the minds of football fans in Ireland. The idea behind mounting such an aggressive media campaign, presumably, is to effect some kind of change by maintaining an atmosphere of discontent among Northern Ireland fans and, at the same time, attempting to encourage a feeling of sympathy or unease among Republic of Ireland fans. The rabidly sensationalist stories which continue to prevail are typically written by resident hacks who are embarrassingly ignorant of the statutes governing eligibility, as well as the very recent court case on the issue and they insist on propounding myths and outright lies in an effort to stir up frenzy among the Northern Ireland fan base. Of course, that many of these writers are sympathetic to, or even fans of, Northern Ireland is acceptable, but what is utterly inexcusable is the stubbornness of their ignorance in the face of readily available facts. It seems to suggest a defiant ‘head-in-the-sand’ mentality.
Since his appointment by the IFA as the association’s ‘Elite Player Mentor’, Gerry Armstrong has continued this frustrating habit. The former Northern Ireland international has been extremely vocal about his intentions to persuade players to stick with, declare for, or in some cases return to, the IFA. However, it is hard to take anything Armstrong says seriously when he comes out with such short-sighted, erroneous gems as:
“If you are born in part of Northern Ireland that is your country of birth and usually, under FIFA or UEFA rules, that would be the country you would play for.”
As well as the oft-repeated fallacy that,
“Because of the Good Friday Agreement if you are born in Northern Ireland you can play for Northern Ireland or you can play for the Republic of Ireland“
In light of such astounding ignorance, it seems only logical to conclude that Armstrong, who is a relatively senior public figure within the IFA, does not have the faintest clue about that which he is talking about, which is odd, because the CAS case was, in effect, an expensive lesson in interpretation for the IFA. Amazingly, Armstrong has also been making completely unsubstantiated allegations against the FAI in the local media, claiming that the association is actively engaged in the “tapping up” of players aged 15 and 16 years of age – a claim which has been resolutely refuted by the FAI, who have stated their view that it is a player’s prerogative whether or not they wish to play for their teams.Furthermore, Armstrong suggests that young players are facing pressure “from a political point of view”, whatever that is supposed to mean. The credibility, if there ever was any, to Armstrong’s allegations is undermined substantially by the fact that, rather hypocritically, he is currently engaged in the “tapping up” of players who are registered with other associations, including players who were not actually born in Northern Ireland, such as Anton Rodgers, an English-born footballer who plays for the representative teams of the FAI.
If anything worthwhile can be taken from the recent proliferation of articles in the media, it is that, in the realm of complex issues such as national team eligibility, Irish football fans should always be wary of the oblique musings of former footballers. Instead, they should ideally refer to the report which was issued by the CAS following the IFA’s complaint against FIFA and the FAI. Failing that, they should consult Daniel Collins’ article ‘FIFA Player Eligibility in the Context of Ireland: The Actual Rules, the Real Facts and Dispelling the Prevailing Myths’ (2011), which remains one of the most in-depth examinations of the issue and outlines, with brutally clinical concision, how Gerry Armstrong and others of his ilk are absolutely out of their depth on this issue.
This article appeared on Backpage Football on 20/10/11