The ongoing row over whether football players from Northern Ireland can play for the Republic took another twist at the weekend.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter — one of the world’s most senior footballing figures — told journalists at a press conference that, in effect, the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland could take their pick of players born and developed in Northern Ireland.
The news has angered chiefs at the Belfast-based Irish Football Association, who had hoped that FIFA eligibility rules would apply. These state that that players need to have lived in a country for a number of years or have direct ancestors who were born in that country.
Mr Blatter was in Newcastle, Co Down, for a top level football conference.
When asked at a media briefing whether players born in Northern Ireland could play for the Republic, he replied: “As long as they haven’t played for Northern Ireland. This is done.”
And when further pressed as to whether he was backing the FAI position over the IFA he said: “Yes.”
The development is a blow for the IFA, who had been concerned about losing some of Northern Ireland’s best players to their southern counterparts.
Among these are Manchester United player and Londonderry native Darron Gibson, and Marc Wilson of Portsmouth, who is originally from Northern Ireland.
The issue has been the subject of much discussion and controversy in recent years. FIFA is expected to make a definitive ruling on the matter later this month.
IFA spokesman Geoff Wilson said he believed that the current FIFA regulations concerning the four conditions of eligibility should be upheld.
“We will not be sitting back,” he said.
“The IFA will have further talks and will be seeking clarification from FIFA on this matter.”
Gary McAllister, from the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporter’s Clubs, also said the matter must be clarified.
“We feel strongly that FIFA’s rules should be properly enforced,” he said.
“The key thing is for FIFA to clarify what the rules are once and for all as to whether people are eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland despite having been born in Northern Ireland.
“We would be particularly concerned that young players who have played for Northern Ireland at youth international level would then appear to be attracted to going to the Republic of Ireland, with the IFA having invested time and resources in developing those players. We feel very strongly that that is something which has to be addressed.”