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All-Ireland football dream team? It's more a pipe dream: John Laverty on day north-south XI stunned Brazil

By John Laverty

You could set your £16k Fifa gift watch by it. The failure of both Northern Ireland and the Republic to reach the World Cup means it's time once again to roll out that hoary old chestnut - the merits of an all-Ireland football team.

From my standpoint, it's a debate seemingly confined to this island's radio stations; I've never actually heard this supposedly hot topic discussed in bars or terraces on either side of the border.

Indeed, I haven't come across this pressing issue in any medium over the past four years; not since the last unsuccessful World Cup campaigns.

Moreover, precisely no one was hosting an 'all-Ireland' debate when the GAWA and their southern counterparts invaded France for memorable Euro 2016 sorties; the first time both had been at a major finals together.

But here we go, here we go - again.

Before I catalogue the myriad of reasons why it couldn't happen, however, it's only fair to run the idea up the disputed flag pole and see how it flutters.

Those who champion having only one set of boys in green and white to cheer for, do so for political, idealistic, romantic - and, dare I say it, even football reasons.

If you espouse the reunification of Ireland, it naturally follows that you'd seek an all-Ireland football team. Hence predictable tweets from the likes of Sinn Fein MLA, former Sports Minister and high-profile attendee of precisely one Norn Iron match, Caral Ni Chuilin.

And from a purely football - or 'soccer' - point of view, logic dictates that the larger the pool you dip into, the greater the prospect of success on the field.

(Mexico are an embarrassing, national disgrace of an exception to this rule, while the likes of China and India are still fledgling nations in football terms).

Those of us the wrong side of 50 will undoubtedly recall the thrilling 'what-if' experiment of 1973, when 'Shamrock Rovers' lost 4-3 to the touring world champions Brazil in Dublin.

The 'Rovers' that day? Pat Jennings, Miah Dennehy, Dave Craig, Paddy Mulligan, Martin O'Neill, Derek Dougan, Alan Hunter, Liam O'Kane, Bryan Hamilton, Tommy Carroll, Terry Conroy, Mick Martin, Johnny Giles and Don Givens,

In front of 30,000 fans, Martin, Conroy and Dougan found the net as Brazil conceded three goals for the first time in eight years; regrettably, a certain 'G Best' was unavailable.

That game was meant to help ease political tension; typically, it did the opposite.

Firstly, the Irish FA objected to both the game itself - fearing it might encourage world governing body Fifa to push for an all-Ireland team - and the name 'Ireland XI', hence the Rovers sobriquet.

Also, no one could agree on a national anthem so only the Brazilian one was played.

And Dougan, one of the principal drivers of the showpiece game, opened a major can of worms by suggesting that IFA president (and Fifa bigwig) Harry Cavan had instructed the then Northern Ireland manager Terry Neill not to pick him for future internationals. (It was a hollow claim, as the ageing 'Doog' had already been pensioned off).

But while on a history lesson, it's worth pointing out that - contrary to what some phone-in punters were claiming yesterday - it wasn't Ireland's partition that led to the formation of the breakaway FAI (Football Association of Ireland).

No, the irreversible schism followed a bitter dispute between associates of Leinster and Ulster, fermented by the former's belief that the IFA were biased towards the northern province.

Indeed, the end came when an Irish Cup semi-final replay between Glenavon and Shelbourne in 1920 was scheduled for Belfast instead of Dublin; the incensed Leinster FA formed a breakaway group that would ultimately morph into the FAI.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (founded 1879), Irish Hockey Union (1886) and Golfing Union of Ireland (1891) all survived partition, hence the 'all-Ireland' element that persists today and is often cited in a "why not football" debate.

Now for the scare story: it's more likely that Northern Ireland would have to merge with the rest of the UK football teams than form an island amalgam with the Republic.

Fifa don't want too many tiddlers; for them it would be a lot neater if the Olympic classification was mirrored in football. Then you'd have an 'Ireland' (but not ALL-Ireland) team and a British one.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would cease to exist as separate football entities - remember, they're not sovereign (i.e. self-governing) countries, anyway.

Both Fifa and Uefa (but, tellingly, not the International Olympic Committee) have so far turned a blind eye to this - but for how long?

If you're wondering why the Irish FA are so opposed to a UK football team every time the Olympic Games come around, that's why.

Incidentally, the 'sovereign country' argument reared its head during the recent civil unrest in Spain when Catalonia - with a nod towards the UK - insisted it could indeed exist as an entity in its own right.

It might even get its own football team…

That's separatism, however, and this is the polar opposite - but there won't be an all-Ireland team until there's an all-Ireland state.

See, it really is up to the politicians - and, de facto, the voters. Don't hold your breath.

The 'debate', meanwhile, will evaporate because the overwhelming majority of respective fans don't want it - and those who don't understand the unbreakable fidelity associated with a football team don't understand the game itself.

Most politicians don't want to tackle the issue either but here's the real kicker - the two associations would, ironically, unite in their opposition to any change in the status quo.

And that's because having only one international team means having only one group of lucky blazers travelling the world - and availing of Fifa and Uefa's legendary hospitality and largesse.

Yes, it really is as fundamental and as pathetic as that.

Belfast Telegraph

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