Northern Ireland

Players the focus as NI meet Republic in Dublin

Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Image caption The Nations Cup game will take place in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Tuesday

It might seem hard to believe, but when Northern Ireland fans travel to Dublin for Tuesday night's Nations Cup game less of them will be in attendance than went to Serbia in March for a Euro 2012 qualifier.

Only 210 supporters are scheduled to board designated Irish Football Association (IFA) coaches for the game against the Republic of Ireland in the 50,000 capacity Aviva stadium.

That is 30 less than the number who travelled to Belgrade for a match played behind closed doors.

The main Northern Ireland supporters group has chosen to boycott the games against the Republic and Wales this week because of anger at the travel restrictions placed on them.

They were put in place after incidents involving a small group of fans during the Nations Cup match against Scotland in February.

The IFA attempted to ease concerns by reducing the price of the official bus travel to the games from £30 to £22, but the stance of the Amalgamation of Official NI Supporters' Clubs has remained unchanged.

'Open letter'

Now the fans' group has chosen the day of the match to highlight an issue of player eligibility which it says is giving the Republic of Ireland an "unfair advantage".

In an open letter, published in the Irish News, it has appealed to FIFA to end what it calls "football apartheid in Ireland".

Fifa rules include a clause allowing players to change nationality once before they play a senior competitive match if they were born "on the territory of the relevant association".

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided for Northern Ireland-born people to claim either British or Irish nationality.

The NI supporters' group said it was "sadly ironic" that an agreement "designed to promote good relations between North and South and reconciliation between the two communities within NI - has been cherry picked and is being used as justification for a policy that is having quite the opposite effect".

Image caption Marc Wilson of Stoke City represented NI at youth level but has switched to the Republic

"This FAI (Football Association of Ireland) policy is driving a sectarian wedge between the two communities in Northern Ireland in regard to football," the letter adds.

"The Northern Ireland team has always been inclusive: Protestants, Catholics, unionists and nationalists have always represented Northern Ireland with pride and distinction; and it is the IFA's and the supporters' desire that the Northern Ireland team should have the support of everyone in Northern Ireland and not be the preserve only of one community."

Preston North End's Daniel Devine is the latest player to have represented Northern Ireland at youth level to have switched to the Republic.

He is following in the footsteps of players such as Manchester United's Darron Gibson and Stoke City's Marc Wilson among others.

Northern Ireland team manager Nigel Worthington has grown increasingly frustrated at the Republic's recruiting policy and wants further clarification on the eligibility ruling.

Last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against the Irish FA's bid to prevent more Northern Ireland-born players opting for the Republic.

Worthington believes a "production line" of talent is being lost and says any ruling "needs to be more black and white" to ensure players represent the country of their birth.

'Flogging a dead horse'

"It's frustrating and disappointing that a lot of time, energy, commitment and finance goes into these players over a period of years and then when they are 17, 18, 19 or even 20, there is the opportunity for them, because of the ruling, to vacate to another country," he said.

However, he did say on Monday that although he is unhappy with the eligibility rules as they affect Northern Ireland, he would use them to his advantage where possible.

Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Jim Gracey believes the IFA have little room for manoeuvre following the Court of Arbitration for Sport's decision and feels Northern Ireland should concentrate on those players who want to play for them.

"It is hard to see what they can do, they (the IFA) will keep knocking on the door, they will still keep lobbying but I think they are flogging a dead horse and they should just get on with it," he said.

The FAI were contacted with regard to the issues raised in the open letter, but have not responded as yet.

Clarification on the eligibility matter will have to wait for another day, if ever, but at least both sets of fans have the opportunity for a decisive result at Tuesday's game.

Unfortunately for most Northern Ireland supporters, as is the case with the sports rulings themselves, they will be away from the action when the final score is settled.

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