Belfast Telegraph

Why fair play must be the first allegiance in football

The Republic's 'poaching' of Northern Ireland players must finally come to an end, writes Gary McAllister

The decision by Everton's Shane Duffy to switch his international footballing allegiance from Northern Ireland to the Republic has reignited the debate surrounding the issue of player eligibility.

At the same time, it heightens the sense of injustice on the part of those who have the best interests of Northern Irish football at heart.

This is an issue which has rumbled on for a few years. It previously came to a head when Darron Gibson of Manchester United took advantage of a loophole in FIFA's statutes allowing anyone born in Northern Ireland, but claiming Irish citizenship, to declare their intention to make themselves available for selection by the Football Association of Ireland (football's governing body in the Republic).

Both Shane Duffy and Darron Gibson had previously been involved with Northern Ireland's youth international teams - Duffy from the schoolboy international team right up to the senior international side, while Gibson featured at schools and Under-17 level.

The difference between the two situations is that Duffy is within his rights to appear for the Republic - his father was born in the Republic thus making him eligible.

The world governing body of football, FIFA, permits players to appear for a country if a parent or grandparent was born there. Indeed, the Northern Ireland team has benefited from this situation, Jimmy Nicholl, Iain Dowie and Lawrie Sanchez being just a few examples.

With Darron Gibson the FAI are exploiting the citizenship laws of the Republic which lay claim to citizens in a jurisdiction other than their own. This exploitation of a unique political situation breaches a 'gentleman's agreement' between the Irish Football Association (Northern Ireland) and the FAI.

There is also the issue of the time and resources invested into the development of those players who later decide to switch their allegiance to the Republic. Quite apart from anything else, they deny another young player the opportunity to develop their ability by taking their place in the team only to later walk away from the Northern Ireland set-up. So, what can be done to address these issues?

Northern Ireland fans believe the FAI should honour its part of the agreement between Irish football's governing bodies and select players eligible for their teams through birthplace, parentage, grand parentage and residency. Surely the FAI has a sense of fair play?

Should that not happen, then the Irish FA needs to make representations to the world governing body, FIFA. The case must be made for the current FIFA statutes to be revised in a way that no longer makes it possible for the FAI to misuse them.

If FIFA continues to endorse the FAI's view and allow the situation to continue then surely an equally unique approach is required to address the disadvantage at which this puts football in Northern Ireland.

In club football, a 'development fee' must be paid when a player moves from one club to another having benefited from the coaching and other resources ploughed into their enhancement.

Given that this is an identical situation caused by unique circumstances, then FIFA needs to ensure that the smaller association is not unfairly disadvantaged.

There is a great sense of unfairness among Northern Ireland fans in all of this. Having worked so hard during the last number of years to challenge and remove the spectre of sectarianism from Northern Ireland's international football matches, the 'poaching' of our young footballers is a real kick in the teeth.

We have worked hard to promote a non-sectarian, non-political approach to our football. We want to support a team consisting of players from throughout our country, wherever they come from.

Gary McAllister is press officer for the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs

The greatest moments in our wonderful footballing history were achieved by players from both communities in Northern Ireland.

It is something Northern Ireland fans are tremendously proud of - and we want that to continue.

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