Thursday, June 2, 2011

Northern media fail to grasp the basics of the eligibility issue

It’s both bewildering and inexplicable how such an astounding level of confusion still reigns over the issue of player eligibility in spite of the fact that there are clear rules in place to govern it (see articles 15-18 of FIFA’s Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes), over which an independent judicial body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, has provided ample clarification in a long, thorough and detailed judgment

You could maybe excuse the general public for not knowing any better – it’s often fair to trust that those whose professional duty it is to report reliable facts and information to the masses actually know what they’re talking about – but when supposedly serious Northern based journalists and media outlets are continually getting the basics of this issue so unfathomably wrong, it’s simply unforgivable.

This issue didn’t arise out of any “rule change”, nor is it really anything new. Former IFA president and newly-instated FIFA vice-president, Jim Boyce, acknowledged the eligibility of northern-born Irish nationals to play for Ireland as far back as January of 1999 in a meeting with his counterpart at the FAI, Bernard O’Byrne.

Of the meeting, Boyce stated:

“The issue of Northern Ireland’s eligible players opting to play for the Republic was discussed at length with the FAI. It was also stressed that if a player made an approach himself, there was little the FAI could do unless FIFA was to change legislation. That, we accept. But at least we have agreed to notify one another should this happen.”

The atmosphere was described by O’Byrne to have been “very positive” whilst Boyce declared himself as being “extremely happy” with the outcome of all items on the agenda at the meeting. Clearly, the IFA’s thinking on the matter changed at some later point in time – most likely around the time of Darron Gibson’s high-profile declaration for Ireland – although there was no reason whatsoever for them to ever assume that the situation or the effect of the rules governing this specific issue had changed.

And let’s dispel another myth bandied around by IFA supporters and those in the Northern press pack sympathetic to Worthington’s team, regarding the imaginary ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of 1950.

There was no gentleman's agreement. The Court Of Arbitration In Sport cleared that up.

If one had existed, you'd have expected the IFA to have offered proof of it, which they failed to do. There is only evidence for FIFA issuing a dictat effective upon the IFA in order to prevent them from selecting players born south of the border. No corresponding dictat was ever issued to the FAI. Regardless, rules supercede "agreed and established practice" every time.

If there was any agreement between the two associations, it was when Jim Boyce accepted that the FAI could call up northern-born players in 1999. It’s also worth noting that when the IFA took the FAI to CAS it could be rightfully deemed a severe breach of such an agreement. In light of this, there is no reason why the FAI shouldn't communicate with northern-born players prior to them volunteering.

Players born in the north have been lining out for FAI teams under FIFA rules identical in effect to those in place today before the Good Friday Agreement, despite the constant citing of the agreement by the media as some kind of watershed moment in the eligibility issue.

The likes of Ger Crossley, Gerard Doherty, Mark McKeever and Tony Shields – all northern-born – played for FAI teams between 1995 and 1997. Countless others have played for Irish teams between the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the Darron Gibson saga that seemed to implant the issue in the minds of NI football supporters. The Good Friday Agreement has nothing to do with the application of FIFA’s statutes on Irish nationality so it’s frustrating to see it continually bandied about in discussions surrounding player eligibility, especially when the eligibility of northern-born Irish nationals to play for Ireland is being attributed to its terms.

If anyone seeks as complete an understanding of this issue as is available, I suggest they have a read of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s judgment in the case of Daniel Kearns. The case was very straightforward – the IFA were always going to lose it – and the IFA lost it under the same misunderstanding from which many media commentators are currently suffering; that the terms and conditions outlined in article 16 applied to six county-born Irish nationals.

Daniel Collins