You have to sympathize with the Irish Football Association, the governing body for soccer in Northern Ireland. The association, not for the first time, has expressed its disappointment with the flight across the border of a promising player who honed his skills from an early age under its tutelage.
The latest to take flight is Derry native James McClean who has declared for the Republic, in part on the grounds that he felt uncomfortable turning out for Northern Ireland because of the reaction of fans at Windsor Park in Belfast. McClean is Catholic and the atmosphere at Northern Ireland home games has long had a strong loyalist ring to it.
By way of a little QED, McClean received death threats when he announced his move.
McClean represented Northern Ireland up to Under-21 level and the outstanding start to his Premiership career at Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland had only reinforced a sense that here was a player who would have made a significant contribution to the fortunes of the North side.
That’s until McClean jumped ship and fell in line with Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic squad which, unlike Northern Ireland, is competing in the Euro 2012 championship finals a few weeks from now.
The IFA, in a statement, said it was disappointed by the comments made by McClean that accompanied his switch to the Republic, a switch that is permissible under FIFA rules.
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The IFA statement said that its “strategic vision” was to foster, develop and promote football for all throughout Northern Ireland, in part by way of a program aimed at making sure that “the sport of football is welcoming and inclusive to all members of our society.”
This is noble indeed, but the reality is that soccer, more than any other sport in Northern Ireland, tends to reflect community divisions and tensions. Some sports in Ireland, rugby is one, field all-Ireland international teams. Soccer, by contrast, still cleaves strongly to the geographic line hammered out by a border commission in an age when players kicked mud-covered leather balls with boots that looked like the shoe called home by the “old woman” of nursery rhyme fame.
An all Ireland soccer team? The idea has been kicked around for years without any result and chances are that the kicking around will simply continue. Still, any and every effort to make Northern Ireland Catholic players feel more at home, in every sense, is to be welcomed because such effort has a positive effect on the broader community.
That said, James McClean has made his move. We wish him well for the Euro finals.