Fifa plan on cross-border eligibility for Ireland shocks IFA

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The Independent Football

The Irish Football Association, which looks after the interests of the game in Northern Ireland, said yesterday it was "staggered" by a Fifa proposal to settle the eligibility dispute with the Football Association of Ireland, the equivalent body in the Republic.

World football's governing body, invited to rule on the issue by the IFA, has suggested that players born on both sides of the border should be able to represent Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

However, the IFA chief executive, Howard Wells, told the BBC that the Fifa compromise was "totally inconsistent with the body's own rules which apply to the other 206 countries in Fifa. I am extremely surprised about this, to say the least, staggered, in fact. All we are asking is for Fifa to apply their own rules consistently to all members of their organisation."

The issue has been brought to a head by the case of the Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson, who was born in Northern Ireland and played for the province at Under-16 level before switching allegiance to the Republic.

Gibson, on loan at Wolverhampton Wanderers, recently appeared for the Republic in a Euro 2008 qualifier even though he would not ordinarily be eligible because neither he, his parents, nor his grandparents were born south of the border.

The Football Association of Ireland believes it is entitled to pursue players born in Northern Ireland under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which guarantees the right of anyone born anywhere on the island to apply for an Irish passport.

The Fifa proposal would enshrine this right for football purposes, as well as the right of a player from south of the border to represent Northern Ireland.

Given that few footballers from the Republic are likely to want to play for the province, the IFA would have little to gain from agreeing to the recommendation. But the proposal, which effectively upholds the status quo, has been welcomed by the FAI.

Fifa will listen to submissions from both bodies before a ruling is made by its executive committee, although Wells has hinted he will consider legal advice.