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Fighting for Ireland

The absence of Stephen Ireland from the international fold, writes Gavan Reilly, is not a traitorous choice but a professional one

One can only image what it must be like to grow up in a sports-mad city like Cork, showing a prodigious talent for soccer, and having the surname Ireland. Presumably life consists of being constantly barraged by smart remarks that ‘Ireland could play for Ireland’. Perhaps a lifetime’s exposure to such petty comparisons might eventually diminish any desire to represent that country at the highest level.

StephenIrelandSuch is the case of the much-maligned Stephen Ireland, the brightest light in a young and emerging Republic of Ireland team – that is, until September 2007. Ireland’s self-imposed exile from the national squad, which began when he faked the death of both his grandmothers so that he could visit his girlfriend after a miscarriage, has evoked a mini-Saipan of sorts amongst the Irish public: has the Manchester City star been rejected by his country, or is the midfielder letting his country down by declining to serve it?

In a revealing interview last week, Ireland put paid to some of the longstanding rumours regarding his relationship with his international manager, and with his country. “I never enjoyed my time playing for Ireland… I don’t feel guilty watching them play without me. If they lose I won’t feel it was my fault. If they win, I won’t ever wish I could be there. I have a good life.”

Asked about the persistent rumours that slagging over his’s premature baldness, which he had attempted to cover up with a weave, was another reason the midfielder might be reluctant to return to the international fold, Ireland was quick to dismiss the rumours. “All that stuff is ridiculous. Robbie Keane contacted me saying, ‘A lot of us are getting bad press, getting slated, because all these stories are coming out’. But I had a great relationship with the players. Even now I have all their numbers.”

With the last fortnight being so charged from a sporting perspective, as national teams took on and beat (morally, at least) the world’s best in both soccer and rugby, it might be difficult to comprehend how any Irishman would want not to be involved on the biggest stages. We would do well, though, to divorce ourselves from the talk of defeating South Africa – or, for that matter, qualifying to be there next summer – and try to have a degree of empathy for Stephen Ireland’s case.

As a professional sportsman, Ireland’s sense of nationality cannot help but differ from those of the regular folk. While representing one’s country is a privilege for any sportsman, when money becomes a factor – and international call-ups are largely a chance for an extra pay packet – that privilege can only be devalued. In their world, Stephen Ireland isn’t an enemy of the state; he’s merely prioritising his options.

It might be easy to moan that with the talents of a player like Ireland, the national side would now be preparing for the World Cup. Certainly, the argument holds water. But what difference is there between Ireland and the likes of Wayne Rooney who choose to disregard Irish heritage and play for other countries? Ireland should not fight over Stephen Ireland, but accept his decision and stop haranguing him for his professional choices.