The changing profile of the Ireland senior squad is reflective of changes in our society that have been visible at schoolboy level across the past decade and the game will benefit from it
In this period of transition for Irish football, there is one change that is set to become permanent and that is the steady evolution of our national teams to become representative of a multicultural society.
A glance at the surnames in Stephen Kenny’s squad for the training camp in Spain is a reflection of the new normal in underage football in this country, a move that runs in tandem with athletics and other sports that are being enriched by striking changes in our country’s demographics.
If Chiedozie Ogbene can get on the pitch in Budapest on Tuesday, he will become the first African-born player to line out for Ireland at senior level.
Ogbene left Lagos to move to Cork with his family in 2005, and excelled in both football and GAA before throwing his lot in with the professional game.
Kenny’s squad also includes Gavin Bazunu, Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele, all of whom were born here in the early 2000s with a Nigerian father and Irish mother.
New call-up Daniel Mandroiu has a Romanian father and Irish mother.
The profile of the squad now mirrors youth teams around the country at all levels, but there’s a certain symbolism in this now being reflected at senior level.
Ogbene spoke articulately last week about the opportunity to become a role model for players with a similar heritage who may not have looked at Ireland games and found stories they can identify with.
It hasn’t always been easy for players with his background to make their way into the sport. Emeka Onwubiko made headlines in 2004 when he became the first Nigerian-born footballer to pull on the green shirt by appearing in an U-15 international. But his battle to secure an Irish passport complicated his ambitions, especially when it came to securing cross-channel moves.
Stephen Kenny spoke last week of how Ogbene had to go through red tape to get his papers. The 2004 referendum vote that people born in Ireland should not be automatically entitled to Irish citizenship has also posed problems in certain instances.
Southampton’s Michael Obafemi, who was born here in 2000 to non-Irish parents but moved to London as an infant, is only eligible because his life started pre-2004.
However, the problem cases are now the exception rather than the rule and as the communities who largely moved here around the turn of the century become even more integrated and embedded in the populace, the backgrounds of players will largely cease to be a talking point – although Tallaght-born West Ham striker Mipo Odubeko ruminating over his options showcased how our relationship with eligibility rules could develop a new strand.
“The landscape has changed, there’s no doubt about it,” says Ireland U-16 manager Paul Osam, the son of a Ghanaian father and Irish mother who played in the League of Ireland at a time where players with a different skin colour stood out from the crowd.
“It’s straightforward to me really. The reality is there are more people in the country from different ethnic and minority backgrounds. With football being the most played sport, you are going to have more people playing it. This is happening because the country has changed.
“What I would say from my own experience is that football is probably the best sport for being ignorant to colour because it’s played all around the world. There’s no snobbery in it. Yes, there will be bits and pieces of racism, but that’s societal. I don’t think we have people in football who would dismiss a player because of his background.”
Osam was recently sent a teamsheet from an England U-16 game with Wales and reckoned that 75 percent of the English side were from African backgrounds going by their surnames. “We are probably still 15 to 20 years behind that,” he says.
“But we are going to have all sorts of ethnicities and nationalities. In my opinion – and this would be the opinion of any Irish coach – the details of their background are immaterial when you are just trying to pick the best players.”
St Patrick’s Athletic academy director Ger O’Brien echoes Osam’s sentiments. Two of the most promising players on the Saints books at the moment are Glory Nzingo and James Abankwah, both of whom are of African origin and are on the radar of European clubs.
“When we go and watch games, we don’t see the colour of skin. We see a young footballer whether he’s black or white or Moldovan or Albanian or whatever the family history might be,” he says.
“What we are trying to do is identify young players who are very good at football. Yes, we want to know where their family has been, what’s their journey, what motivates the kid and what motivates the family. You do have a get feel for the players. We can be very ignorant in this country so you have to grasp where they are coming from.
“And I think we’ve been successful that way, in terms of seeing a really good mix with kids from different backgrounds.”
There is a spin-off debate which asks questions about if the growing diversity will have any impact on the Irish DNA.
Osam is wary of any discussion which can veer into stereotypes; the consistent depiction of African players as big fast units and the Eastern Europeans as skillsters that may be weaker in other areas.
Generalisations are dangerous. “N’Golo Kante is one of the smallest midfielders around, he’s of African origin but he’s technically gifted and it’s his reading of the game that makes him such a brilliant player” asserts Osam.
“Yes, we are playing in a slightly different way now, our underage teams are playing a more European style of football but that’s not because of an influx of players from Europe and Africa. I think that’s because of a change of mindset.”
On the same theme, O’Brien points out that Anthony Stokes was head and shoulders above other players of his generation at schoolboy level and a big aspect in that was that he was simply an early developer.
At the same time, though, he does feel that the widening of the pool has broadened the types of players that coaches can pick from and there can be differences in terms of natural attributes. Some of the quickest and strongest players in the Saints schoolboy ranks are of African origin. The Eastern European communities do have standout players with exceptional technical skills.
One of the most exciting prospects in the country is Kevin Zefi, the Inter Milan-bound Shamrock Rovers winger who has Albanian parents. The power of the trailblazers is the impact they will have on those coming through. “I think it’s fantastic that they will all have role models,” stresses Osam.
The next generation will not face the questions that Ogbene encountered last week, but he was comfortable with the subject matter.
“My father is hardcore Nigerian,” he said, “I see myself as an Irishman but obviously I am Nigerian by birth and I cannot forget that but I’m so happy that it’s diverse. It’s clear that everyone’s together and that’s the main thing.”
There may always be an element that will pick out an unfamiliar looking surname and adopt a them and us standpoint. But those voices will eventually be drowned out by a very natural evolution. And we will undoubtedly benefit from it.