Intercultural Integration and Sport in Ireland

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Arguably one of the greatest surprises of the recent World Cup was the achievement of the German football team in securing third place. In the run up to the tournament, the German team had generally been regarded as one of the weakest in their history, lacking the necessary experience as well as the quality and guile needed to succeed on the global stage. German internet users openly debated the futility of travelling to South Africa given their team´s perceived limitations.

Defying expectations, the German team finished in third place, losing by only a single goal to the eventual winners Spain in the semi-final. Moreover, the German team won the bronze medal by playing an exciting and adventurous brand of football, scoring 4 goals against both England and Argentina and a further 3 in the third place play-off. However, this team differed from successful German formations of the past in one crucial respect. It was composed of a significant number of players from migrant backgrounds who had been awarded German nationality and effectively integrated into their national sporting system.

A total of 11 of the 23 man squad were from `non-German´ backgrounds. These included Khedira (Tunisia), Özil and Tasci (Turkey), Klose, Podolski and Trochowski (Poland), Marin (Bosnia), Cacau (Brazil), Gomez (Spain), Boateng (Ghana) and Aogo (Nigeria). Miroslav Klose in his third world cup managed to raise his total tally of World Cup goals to 14, just one short of the overall record of 15 held by Ronaldo of Brazil.

A couple of decades ago, such a multi-ethnic German team would have been impossible, as first and second generation migrants were barred from representing the national team. The crucial step in removing this bar was the abandonment in 2000 of the so-called `one-drop of blood´ policy, which led to the naturalisation of almost 1.3 million people of migrant origin.

This was followed by the development and implementation of a strategic plan to facilitate the involvement and inclusion of this ‘new’ German youth in under-age and development national teams across the sporting spectrum. Hailu Netsiyanwa, Director of Sport at Insaka AFC,[i] highlights how this led directly to the establishment of a “strategy that encouraged a rich football talent pool to aim for German international caps at all levels.”

The city of Köln, with a population roughly equivalent to Dublin including 32% from a migrant background, provides an excellent example of the new approach. Köln developed and implemented a targeted, strategic plan aimed at maximising intercultural integration through sport. This program is centred at its 6,000 student capacity Sports University, which is the largest in the world.

Unfortunately, in Ireland we appear to be going in the opposite direction. Rather than facilitating the incorporation of young migrants into our sporting life, we appear intent on restricting their participation.

The removal of the automatic right of Irish citizenship to people born in Ireland after 1st January 2005, if they failed to fulfil certain conditions, has made it far more difficult for Irish migrants to participate in Irish sporting life. This situation is further aggravated by the tortuously slow processing of refugee claims in Ireland, which has resulted in several talented sports practitioners being left sidelined.

As Ken McCue, the international officer at Sports Against Racism Ireland (SARI)[ii] warns, there is the risk of creating what he terms a ‘Heighway factor’. Steve Heighway played as a winger on the highly successful Liverpool team of the 70s and won 34 caps for the Republic of Ireland. Heighway was entitled to represent Ireland at football, as he was born to English parents who were over here on a short-term work assignment. Today, he would no longer qualify for Ireland. Instead, to satisfy the current eligibility requirements, he would have to forage around in his family tree to try and unearth an Irish grandparent.

There is a serious risk that the reservoir of migrant talent being nurtured in football clubs, such as Insaka AFC, risks being lost to Ireland. A number of players at the Insaka nursery have been left with no option but to consider declaring for their African countries of origin. Furthermore, given the mobility opportunities open to young footballers today, there is a significant possibility these players will be attracted by other countries in Europe where they might more easily satisfy the citizenship requirements.

The present situation is not helped by the regrettable lack of inter-cultural sensitivity and understanding demonstrated by many of our political elite. A particular low point was reached by Ireland´s Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Martin Cullen, when he stated after the Beijing Olympics

”Obviously, unless you’re black and African you’re not going to do well in sprint or middle distance. We’ll get the odd one coming through, like a Sonia [O’Sullivan] or an Eamonn Coghlan, but we’ll deal with them as they come. But the likes of the javelin, the discus, the pole vaulting, these are the ones being won by white Europeans. Physically and mentally we’re suited to them, and it’s easy to see how we could do well here.”

Why Cullen believes the white European physique and psyche are especially attuned to heaving javelins and discuses long distances or vaulting over horizontal sticks dangled precariously high up above the ground is, to put it mildly, baffling. More to the point, it demonstrates a lamentable ignorance on the part of a member of our political hierarchy as to the new multi-ethnic tapestry of which Ireland is now composed.

It is this kind of blinkered approach that resulted in a situation where the Nigerian-born, Kelvin Ekanem, who was at the time of Cullen´s statement the Irish Schools sprint champion, not being able to travel abroad to represent Ireland. Instead, visa barred, he had to remain in Ireland while the Irish-born runner up took his place. Kelvin is now a rugby player with Lansdowne and still awaiting word on his status so that he can try and represent Ireland at some level on the rugby field.

Nor has anything improved since. Ireland now has another Nigerian-born dual 100 and 200 metres schools champion, Seye Ogunlewe, who is also obliged to stay in Ireland and is therefore unable to represent his adopted country abroad. At the same time, Cullen would probably be delighted to know that Athletics Ireland has managed to track down a US athlete of Mexican-Irish heritage Tori Pena who specialises in the pole vault, an event he deems as suitable for ‘Irish’ people. Whereas Kelven and Seye continue to be denied the possibility of representing Ireland on the international stage due to their ‘status’, Tori will participate in the upcoming European Championship in Barcelona as a member of the Irish athletic team. In Pena´s case, as Ian O`Riordan noted in the Irish Times on July 10th, it was possible to sort out her situation “with astonishing speed.”

Indeed, Ireland has long been known for its willingness to take advantage of any loophole to capture sporting ‘talent’, born and/or raised outside Ireland.

This has been particularly true with respect to a veritable flotilla of footballers who were inducted into the Irish national set-up on the grounds of an Irish grandparent. Often referred to as the `granny´ rule, players such as Andy Townsend, Mark Lawrenson, Mick McCarthy, Kevin Sheedy, Tony Cascarino, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge and Kevin Kilbane, were judged eligible to represent Ireland. During his reign as Irish manager, Stephen Staunton openly stated his intention to use the ‘granny rule’ to recruit new players. The current manager Giovanni Trappatoni is reported to have contacted a number of players born outside Ireland to see if they too would declare for Ireland, given their ‘Irish heritage’.

The Republic of Ireland has also been quite ruthless in its poaching of football talent from the North. The pursuit of Man United’s Darron Gibson has been a particularly controversial case. Gibson had represented Northern Ireland at Under 16 level but was then convinced to transfer his allegiance to the Republic of Ireland. Infuriated by the Republic’s actions, the Northern Ireland Football Association (the IFA) went as far as taking a case to FIFA, which was subsequently rejected.

Despite such frantic efforts to capture players from other jurisdictions, Ireland appears willing to let domestically cultivated talent languish in obscurity on account of their migrant backgrounds.

The experience of Chukwuemeka Onwubiko, who is a footballer of Nigerian origin and now plays in Spain is another illuminating one. Chukwuemeka was born in Nigeria and as a ‘refugee in waiting’ in Ireland, he won a number of caps for the Republic of Ireland at underage level. However, he could only play matches taking place on in the Republic, as he was unable to travel to away matches given his status. However, Chukwuemaka’s situation changed when a Belgian football academy displayed an interest in signing him. It was quickly realised that were he to live there for a few years he would be eligible for Belgian citizenship and then potentially to represent Belgium on the international stage. Shortly afterwards, Chukwuemaka suddenly received his Irish passport.

In effect, we are now in a situation where a player from Zambia, who had an Irish grandparent might qualify to play for Ireland whereas an Irish-born player with Zambian parents or grandparents would be ineligible to do so. However, surely a person who has lived and grown up in Ireland should be considered more `Irish´, whatever that might mean, than someone who has never lived here, irrespective of their background.

The restrictions preventing youth with a migrant background from representing their adopted country of Ireland on the global sporting stage should be immediately removed. Furthermore, every effort should be made to ensure their full inclusion in every aspect of our sporting life. Then perhaps Ireland might look forward to one day having national sporting teams which, similar to Germany, will be truly representative of our new multicultural reality.


[i] Insaka AFC, is a football team that plays in a Leinster Area Juvenile League. Insaka is composed of migrant players from 10 different African countries, Poland, Serbia and Romania. Insaka is based in Dublin and is an official partner of Glentoran FC Belfast. For further information, please contact Hailuu Netsiyanwa on 0851488185 and 0834074596

[ii] SARI is a not-for-profit organisation that supports social integration through promoting cross-cultural participation in sporting and inter-cultural events. SARI also sponsors integration projects at the school level and lobbies government and sporting bodies to promote anti-racist policies, programs and practices. One of the directors and major figures behind SARI is Brian Kerr, the ex-Ireland football manager and current manager of the Faroe Islands. Brian Kerr is strongly committed to using sports as a driving force to promote cultural integration and social inclusion. For further information, please visit