FIFA presents plan on political football

Proposals by the sport’s international regulators FIFA have been welcomed by nationalist politicians as paving the way for an all-Ireland soccer team.

Sinn Féin had stressed that Irish citizens in the north should have the right to represent Ireland at international football level rather than being required to play for the ‘Northern Ireland’ team, which also has international standing.

Rugby, golf, cricket and hockey are among the numerous sports which have always been represented by an Irish team, drawn from both parts of the island.

Due to a historical quirk, however, a separate ‘Irish Football Association’ was recognised as organising for the northern Six Counties, while the ‘Football Association of Ireland’ organised in the 26 Counties, leading to two distinct ‘national’ teams.

It is understood that players both north and south will now be given the option of selecting from either team, a plan which has angered the IFA but appeased the FAI. Nationalist politicians, who were baffled at an apparent policy that northerns could not play for their national team, also welcomed the clarification.

SDLP culture, arts and leisure spokeswoman claimed credit for the change of heart.

“I wrote recently to FIFA president Joseph Blatter urging FIFA to recognise the right of northern players to chose which team to play for,” she said.

“I made the point that it is crazy situation where an Irish citizen born in Sydney, Australia could play for the Republic, but a player from Derry could not.

“It is good that Fifa now acknowledge this.”

Sinn Féin’s Paul Butler urged both footbal associations to support the solution, which overcomes a restriction would he said would “run contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and would be a denial of the citizenship rights of northern nationalists”.

Party colleague and chairman of the assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee Barry McElduff said the need for an all-Ireland football team “has never been greater”.

“We view today’s news as a success and a move towards an all-Ireland soccer team,” he said.

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