The refrain that there should be an “all-Ireland” team every time Northern Ireland lose is familiar and yet, like so many familiar refrains, nonsense. Northern Ireland is in fact the smallest team to have advanced at a World Cup, and has done so not once but twice (in entirely separate generations). 1.8 million people isn’t many to choose from, but the evidence clearly shows it has been enough in the past to reach the knock-out stages of the World Cup, and so obviously it could be so again.
In fact, it is the usual thing of taking a problem and applying a completely ludicrous simplistic solution, and then repeating ad nauseum (a bit like the way England’s misfortunes are always blamed, completely contrary to the evidence, on foreigners in the Premier League). This may make us feel good, but it doesn’t actually get us anywhere!
Proof comes from our near neighbours to the north, Iceland, who with a population of 328,000 (roughly the same as Belfast City Council alone), has reached the European Play-offs to qualify for Brazil 2014. Getting to within a single tie of a World Cup for such a small country is unheard of, and yet few who saw its team perform during the group would deny the team thoroughly deserved its second place. This should beg an obvious question to the IFA and to Northern Ireland fans – how?
Positive Mental Attitude, that’s one thing. A foreign coach with a record of past qualification (Swede Lars Lagerback) is another (what was that about foreigners?!)
Icelandic journalist Vidir Sigurdson really lets us in on the secret, however: he talks in The Guardian of the overhauling of Iceland’s infrastructure from 2000, which saw a range of artificial pitches built across Iceland and an emphasis put on small-sided games to improve the technique of young players. Alongside this, there was also a drive to increase the number of homegrown Uefa-qualified coaches, which has also borne fruit.
So there you go, Crusaders was closest!
In all seriousness, over at Social Club NI they give us the good news is that the IFA has recognised this, even if only recently. Artificial pitches are the way forward and it is quite possible the professional game will be played entirely on them by the middle of the century. As for youth football, it should all be 5-a-side or 7-a-side (which does mean overhauling facilities to enable this) – there is simply no point in an 11-a-side match where one team just barges the other out of the way and there is no skill remotely involved. Good coaching is also essential.
It can be done, and the evidence is it will take 12 years. So we’ll just miss Qatar, which may not be such a bad thing…