Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Eligibility must not be political football match

It was with irritation that I read the platform piece in your paper, 'Football bosses score an own goal in eligibility row' by Chris Donnelly (Comment, July 26).

I have been a Northern Ireland supporter for more than 40 years and in that time I have watched with admiration how the game has changed through the efforts of the IFA and of true Northern Ireland supporters. Indeed, in 2006, Northern Ireland's supporters were awarded the Brussels International Supporters Award for their charity work, general good humour and behaviour and efforts to stamp out sectarianism, receiving an award from UEFA and EU representatives.

In recent years, we have witnessed some fantastic wins against leading teams such as the new World Champions Spain and, of course, most memorably against England. We have been very fortunate over the years to have some excellent players.

However, all of this is often marred by the constant battle and ongoing saga over player eligibility. The issues of nationality were resolved in the Good Friday Agreement - and they should stand.

Therefore, if you are born in Northern Ireland you should play, and be proud to play, for your country. If we say we want a shared society then this must also relate to football. How can we have a national side which will only be made up of and be supported by, in the most part, unionists? We cannot have a one-sided team and, to be fair, the IFA has been striving to avoid this.

Chris Donnelly needs to understand and respect this.

Instead of challenging the current rules, we should be focusing on how to improve the national side to ensure that it is a team reflective and representative of everyone in Northern Ireland.

This is, after all, a sport - not a political event. During the Troubles, sport provided a welcome reminder that there was a world outside which was not obsessed about religion and where killing and bombing was not part of normal society. Football fans in the 1970s marvelled at the skills of the late George Best. The qualification of the Northern Ireland team for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups provided more unforgettable memories.

What hope do we have of a shared future if we can't even have a shared football team?

DANNY KENNEDY (UUP)

MLA for Newry and Armagh

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