Fifa rules Northern Irish players need British passports

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The Independent Football

Football's world governing body, Fifa, has told Northern Ireland their players must hold British passports if they are to represent their country. The controversial ruling, despite representations made to the governing body by the Irish foreign affairs minister, Dermot Ahern, means that players holding only Republic of Ireland passports would be barred from appearing for Lawrie Sanchez's side, which is on tour in America.

Fifa's stance is at odds with the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which granted the people of Northern Ireland the right to dual Irish and British nationality. The ruling is an attempt to clear up problems for match commissioners, who have to establish the nationality of participants.

The governing body of the game in Northern Ireland, the Irish Football Association, released a statement yesterday detailing the clarification they have received from Fifa "in the light of the rather exceptional circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland".

"Fifa sees no alternative but to require players to hold the passport of the national association they are seeking to represent in order to allow the match commissioner to verify their eligibility," the statement said. "The fact that a player holds an Irish Republic passport does not demonstrate conclusively, that he or she is eligible to play for Northern Ireland."

The development came as Sanchez and his players prepared for the final game of the tour against Romania in Chicago early tomorrow morning. They may be glad to get back to football after an eventful start to their visit to the city which ends with the game at Soldier Field, home of NFL side the Chicago Bears.

The tourists found themselves plunged into a sectarian row when they were greeted by around 80 protesters when they visited the city's Gaelic Park following their arrival from New York on Tuesday. They were greeted by objectors waving black flags and wearing shirts emblazoned with the words "IFA you are not welcome." But the IFA Chief executive, Howard Wells, shrugged this off, saying: "We must try to get more focus with regard to this tour back to the football side of it, the playing side."

Sanchez fielded a young and largely inexperienced side for the 1-0 defeat by Romania last weekend. The leading scorer, David Healy, the captain, Aaron Hughes, the goalkeeper Maik Taylor and the midfielder Keith Gillespie were among 11 regular squad members unavailable, prompting the manager to hand debuts to Jeff Hughes, Sammy Clingan, Sean Webb, Mark Hughes and Kyle Lafferty.

Sanchez has given little away about his selection for the Romania game, but confirmed that the Aston Villa midfielder Steven Davis will continue as captain, while hinting that the Doncaster keeper Alan Blayney may be involved.