Friday 16 November 2018

Why it's time for John Delaney and the FAI to lead the charge on changing international eligibility rules

FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
FAI chief executive John Delaney. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Tony Considine

Another international week approaches and with it, another week of Declan Rice questions for Martin O'Neill. 

Given that it's now the third month in a row that the Ireland boss has had to face these questions, his tetchiness, at least on this subject, is understandable.

While slapping down any suggestion that capping Rice against Moldova in the last campaign might have saved him, and Ireland, from being caught in this situation, O'Neill also floated the idea that a change in the rules should be considered.

Having gone through a similar, and ultimately fruitless, saga four years ago with Aston Villa's Jack Grealish, the Derryman was quick to highlight the difference with that scenario, pointing to the senior caps he granted Rice in the summer friendlies against Turkey, France and the USA. 

"In the case with young Declan, he has played senior football for us, albeit friendly games, maybe there might be a change of ruling...," he told yesterday's press conference.

Whether O'Neill has been doing enough to encourage dual-qualified young players in the Irish set-up to commit is another argument. The fact that he went on the record stating that the shared nationality of Jimmy Dunne (Northern Ireland) and Michael Obafemi (Nigeria/England) was a factor in naming both in his provisional squad for the upcoming games indicates that he was not, despite his public pronouncements.  

And citing senior caps that are rendered meaningless by the current rules makes the point irrelevant.

But his suggestion of a rule change is surely something that the FAI should be persuing. The FAI were quick to highlight John Delaney's rise through the ranks in UEFA with his election to their Executive Committee last year netting him a reported additional €100k plus to add to his CEO salary. 

Delaney points to the Aviva Stadium's hosting of the 2011 Europa League final and Dublin's selection as a host city for the 2020 European Championships as his major achievements on the international stage. But the time has come for him to use whatever influence he has to start a discussion within FIFA about the eligibility rules.

Throughout FIFA's history, those rules have been a moveable feast. The great Alfredo Di Stéfano famously played for his native Argentina in the 1940s before playing for Spain from 1957 to 1962. The Brazilian José Altafini even represented separate countries in the World Cup, winning it with Brazil in 1958 before competing with Italy in the 1962 edition.

Such anomalies were eventually tackled in draconian fashion with the statutes changing to ensure that an underage cap was enough to tie a player to that nation for the rest of his career. Indeed, Irish qualified players in the 80s and 90s such as Noel Whelan, Kevin Gallen and Brian McDermott all went on the record regretting their youthful acceptance of England call ups with the latter stating: "It was Don Howe that suggested I play for the English youths.

"Don was a big influence at Arsenal at the time, and I was a 17-year-old lacking in confidence, so I just went along with what he said. I suppose I was pressurised into doing it.

"A couple of years later I realised it was a big mistake. I live in England, and I'm not ashamed of that, but being Irish is in my blood."

That ruling changed in 2004 to allow players that had represented one nation at youth level to make one switch to another provided they met certain nationality or residential criteria. Although it has been tweaked and twisted since, one thing that has remained constant is that for a player to be tied, it has to be by a senior cap in a competitive game.    

And it's that which seems to enrage supporters the most. The Jack Grealish affair left a bad taste in Irish fans' mouths. But at least he turned down the call before playing at senior level.

Rice is different and whatever his motivations, if, as looks likely, he declares for England with three senior Ireland caps on his record, it cheapens the award of what should be a prized possession for any footballer.

It may be too late for Rice but it's time that loophole was closed and time for Delaney to show that his UEFA Executive Council position is more than just a bump on his pay packet.   

Online Editors

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