The FAI billed it as their ‘centenary’ match but for some reason they aren’t shouting about it from the rooftops. It’s all very low key.
But Ireland v Belgium at Lansdowne Road next Saturday is in danger of selling out as 44,000 tickets have already been sold. Whatever the reasons for this continued surge in box office, it’s safe to say that the 100th anniversary isn’t a big part of the appeal for next weekend’s friendly.
The anniversary in question is that of the founding of the FAI. If they have any special plans to celebrate the occasion at the Aviva, their website is yet to be revealed at the time of writing. Maybe they keep it humble because they have a lot to be humble about. This is not an organization that has basked in public affection for the last century.
Announcing Belgium’s game in January, CEO Jonathan Hill said that “the FAI’s centenary calls for a very special opponent to celebrate the rich history of Irish teams on the international stage and what a better opponent than the top-ranked team of the world.” Of course, there’s a big difference between celebrating the FAI and celebrating the teams that have played under its auspices over the decades. Most fans would be happy to light some candles on the cake for all the veteran pros who contributed all those days in green.
But honestly, they would have to admit that our “rich history” isn’t all that rich even with the players as opposed to the blazers. We spent most of the 20th century following in the footsteps of international football. It was a long and painful experience of financial deprivation, administrative incompetence, bad luck and diminished self-esteem.
And yet any organization that has existed for 100 years has the right to blow its own trumpet, even if it has made it through for no other reason than that it has managed to stay upright the whole time. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar for an institution that enjoys a monopoly in this country on hosting the world’s most popular sport.
It shouldn’t have required great management skills to keep it between the ditches year after year. But whatever was needed, the FAI struggled to provide it. And not only in times of Pathé newsreels, widespread smog and children’s rickets. But also, as we know, until the crisis of the last few years, when the auditors of the FAI, among others, stated that they “could not find sufficient audit evidence to support the assumption that the company would continue as a going concern”.
Obviously, the aftermath of that chaotic era is still unraveling. It’s one thing to struggle to survive in the early years of trading. It’s quite another thing to still be struggling to survive 100 years later. From that perspective, perhaps it’s a good thing that the new government seems to limit themselves to a few short parps on their trumpet instead of sending out the whole brass band. This is a centenary where they can be forgiven for looking forward to the next 100 more than they look back to the seedy first 100.
The Football Association of Ireland was formed in the summer of 1921. He is approaching his 101st birthday. In 1923 it changed its name to the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) for diplomatic reasons related to Fifa and in connection with its disgruntled umbrella organization in Belfast, the Irish Football Association, which had started operations in 1880.
The enmity between the two rival governing bodies was immediate and inevitable. The FAIFS fought for legitimacy and recognition; it struggled to generate games and therefore revenue. It was not until March 1926 that it was able to take part in an international match on its own, against Italy in Turin. The traveling party brought a tricolor and the sheet music for “The Soldier’s Song,” which would soon become the official national anthem of the new state. The Italian band on duty that day played the tune and the tricolor was duly hoisted. Italy won 3-0. But the game was a milestone for the new club. And along the way, it also played its role in legitimizing not just the FAIFS, but this new community his team represented. A sport that would later be delegitimized by the new state’s official culture actually helped that new state establish itself internationally.
A number of historians were aware of this irony when recalling these events in the 2012 documentary series Green is the colour. This game in Turin had multiple meanings. “I think it was very important symbolically,” Professor Joe Lee said. “Visual evidence is important. You know you can look up [at the flag] and you can feel a surge of pride.”
“There’s this psychological moment,” Professor Mike Cronin said, “where 11 men are dressed in green [are] stand under a stand where the Irish flag flies in its glory. These are your 11 men in green, representing you, the nation. For a crowd in a compound, this is Ireland capitalized.”
‘In a way,’ said Professor Paul Rouse, ‘the very division of football in Ireland gave the Football Association of Ireland the opportunity to present itself as the emblem of the state; to present the idea of Ireland on an international stage.”
Not that the FAI got much thanks for it at the time. And of course it would spend the next 60 years in a state of destitute mediocrity at home and meaningless abroad. It also fell through a series of overtures with the IFA in the 1920s and early 1930s. Between the two fiefdoms, the dream of an All-Ireland team that could compete on the world stage was left to rot and die. They were both complicit in the sham that saw footballers from the island eventually play internationally for both entities. It was not until 1950 that Fifa finally stopped this particular comedy.
That same year, the team now known as the Republic of Ireland was offered an invitation to play at the World Cup in Brazil. The FAI declined because it would have cost their budget to bring a team to Bray, let alone Brazil.
It would be another 40 years before the Republic would end up at a World Cup. Meanwhile, it was a case of Carry On Éire. The team would be selected by committee members for another 20 years.
Former international Mick Meagan was player-manager at Drogheda United in 1969 when he walked off one day after a game against Shelbourne at Tolka Park. He remembered the yarn Green is the colour. “And Charlie Walsh [of the FAI] came up to me and said, “Mick, you’re manager of Ireland.” That was as simple as that, or how stupid! There were no interviews, no nothing.”
“It was really a terrible time for the players in so many ways,” recalled John Giles on the same show. “It was just very, very simple – amateurish. And I think that has been the case since the association was founded.”
Giles spoke of a time some 50 years after the founding of the organization. Even almost 50 years later, the auditors could not confidently speak of the continuation of the company. What’s in the cat is in the kitten, they say.
Still, a centenary should be a time of optimism. It’s best to look ahead, not back. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll finally turn a corner. The new regimes on and off the field are working hard to innovate, maybe even reinvent. So to the next hundred. It will definitely get better. To be fair, they don’t have to be brilliant to be better than their predecessors.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/international-soccer/as-the-fai-emerges-from-100-years-of-administrative-ineptitude-there-may-finally-be-cause-for-optimism-41466656.html As the FAI emerges from 100 years of administrative ineptitude, there may finally be cause for optimism