Ireland United: The dream of an all-island soccer team

Is there any healing the century-long fracture in Irish soccer? asks an RTÉ documentary

Football is many things: a funny old game, a game of two halves, and not a matter of life and death, but something more important than that. Now, in the exhaustively detailed Division: The Irish Soccer Split (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm), it is a way to understand Ireland’s history, an analogue for the fissures in the island’s politics and identity.

We know this because Aidan Gillen tells us so, in a voice over pitched somewhere between demotic and didactic. "It's almost 100 years since football fractured," he says. "Can that split be healed? Can football in Ireland overcome a century of division?"

Writer and director Maurice Linnane wrings a lot from that word: division.

Indeed, in the early days of the Free State, in 1921, football found itself in the curious position of fielding two teams called Ireland. One operated under the aegis of the venerable Irish Football Association (IFA), established during British rule and the fourth oldest football association in the world, and another emerged under the association the new Football Association of Irish Free State (FAIFS).


With two competing visions of nationhood, and the occassional acronymical confusion, those associations can recall Monty Python’s famously bitter rift between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

But part of Linnane’s thesis is that football be seen as a dry run for the Republic (the Tricolour’s first international display came when Ireland played at the Paris Olympics, in 1922, while Amhrán na bhFiann was sung at soccer games years before it was adopted as the National Anthem). The other part, tinged with sadness, is that the fraternal split of partition, and consequently divided leagues, might have been healed through the game itself.

When there were two Irelands, for instance, players such as Johnny Carey used to play for both, until an understandably confused FIFA insisted on differentiation.

The programme lovingly revisits moments that hinted at unity, such as an inspiring charity match, in 1973, between world champions Brazil and Ireland – or rather “The Shamrock Rovers XI”, a team drawn from North and South.

It looks with similar nostalgia at Northern Ireland's heroic performance in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, when fans in the Republic could root for Billy Bingham's team ("Talk inevitably turned to reunification," goes the voiceover); before considering the Republic's ascendency, under Jack Charlton, to Euro '88 and Italia '90 with a quick change of heart ("Who needs reunification when you're this good on your own?").

Featuring the contribution of as many academics as former players, the show combines earnest scholarship with rapturous fandom, inclined to glibly braid sport and politics (“There was precious little that could bridge that divide,” Gillen says of the Troubles, “but there was football…”) while more tellingly illustrating the game’s history with nostalgic cinereel or comic-book effects, Subbuteo figurines or soccer cards that fan across a school desk.

That thickens the suspicion that the programme is too wishful: “It was as if the team that Jack built had taken the baton from the team that Billy built and run with it,” we hear.

Thus the vicious World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Ireland is a tragic nadir – in which Bingham reportedly stoked fan chants of "Trick or Treat", which had been the UVF's cry during the Greysteel massacre some days before it – alleviated partly by the magnanimity of Northern Ireland's team captain Alan MacDonald.

But as Brian Kerr finally drinks in the logic of the central question of the show ("Is there a willingness to have an all-Ireland team?") and dismisses it for several swift reasons ("I don't see it") it's hard to shake the feeling that the argument, so fortified with fact, ultimately has the heft of a pub conversation, a fantasy that shoots and misses.