Football

Opinion: Cut Martin O'Neill Some Slack Over Michael Obafemi Issue

Opinion: Cut Martin O'Neill Some Slack Over Michael Obafemi Issue

Ireland's abundant recent calamities have begotten as many calumnies for Martin O'Neill, but the manager deserves to be cut some slack over the growing anger at his call-up of Southampton's teenage striker Michael Obafemi.

O'Neill initially admitted that the fast-tracking of Obafemi into the senior squad for the games with Northern Ireland and Denmark was influenced at least in part by the fact that the Dublin-born striker is eligible to represent any of Ireland, England, and Nigeria.

It seemed at the time that the manager was determined to never again replicate the Declan Rice situation.

Now it appears that it is happening all over again, with Obafemi wishing to take more time to decide to whom he wants to commit his international career. While Obafemi has trained with the Irish squad all week, O'Neill today confirmed that the striker won't be in Denmark on Monday for the game that could tie him to Ireland forever.

The manager has been pilloried for being seen to facilitate such indecision.

Why call a player into the squad in the first place if the player doesn't know if he wants to commit to Ireland or not? Couldn't they just have had a chat over the phone, and if Obafemi didn't want to fully commit, give his spot to someone who isn't in doubt as to their allegiances? Oh, and how about recognising the League of Ireland for once?

To all of these criticisms there is an answer: O'Neill is doing his job with an admirable sense of respect and perspective amid FIFA's prevailing eligibility rules.

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To deal with the League of Ireland issue first, and the reason he hasn't called up Pat Hoban or another domestic player: rightly or wrongly, O'Neill's job is not to service Irish football as a whole, it is to qualify for Euro 2020 and make the FAI some money.

To this end, his selecting a teenage striker deemed ready for Premier League minutes by two different managers (Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes) over the League of Ireland's top scorer is what he believes is the pragmatic thing to do. There should, of course, be more integration between the national league and the national team, but that is an issue for the FAI as it involves changing O'Neill's job description.

The optics of the current situation, in which it seems that a Dublin-born teenager is seemingly waiting for the Republic of Ireland senior team to impress him rather than the other way round, jars with what international football should be about.

Eligibility rules are such that a player is only tied to a country if he/she has played in a competitive senior game, so it allows situations arise like this one.

A footballer's career will always be short and fragile, so these rules will forever be flouted by players who equivocate in the name of dispassionate economics.

Obafemi and Declan Rice are bound to be at least aware of the cold reality that playing for England is a lot more lucrative than playing for Ireland.

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For those whose allegiances are uncomplicated, the anger around the rules that allow all of this happen is understandable. But not everyone's allegiances are as uncomplicated.

FIFA's rules are also a way of meeting the vicissitudes of globalisation, which has seen technology shrink the world and expand the trammels of identity and national allegiance.

National identity is now, in most cases, a personal, complex and multivalent thing, so while FIFA's rules may not be perfect, they never can be.

(Plus, to use a phrase never before used on this website, To Be Fair To FIFA - they have been more proactive on this topic than, say, World Rugby, who persisted for far too long with their ludicrous and easily-manipulated three-year residency rule).

Perhaps Rice and Obafemi are solely motivated by money, but perhaps they are genuinely conflicted as to who they should represent: Rice was born in England and Obafemi was raised there.

In inviting the two players to train with squads and offering them the chance to play in friendly games, O'Neill is also making a pragmatic football decision, a way of making them feel welcome.

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Conversely, in refusing to tie down Rice against Moldova and forcing Obafemi on a plane to Denmark, O'Neill is avoiding the dubious ethical ground of pressuring teenagers into making enormous career decisions and he is also showing an admirable level of perspective and respect for the ambivalence of national allegiance and identity.

If a nation's football team should reflect the better elements of its society, the Irish manager is currently holding up his end of the bargain.

Among the best achievements in Irish life over the last two decades is the official recognition of the ambiguity of national identity found in the Good Friday Agreement, which allows anyone born in Northern Ireland has the right to identify as "Irish or British or both as they may so choose", the latter essentially meaning a mixture of both. In this, the parties involved were ahead of their time.

The Agreement is currently under threat today because a narrow cabal of Britain's ruling class has fetishised not only a singular, exclusive interpretation of English identity, but a singular, exclusive interpretation of English identity from a time long buried in the past.

That O'Neill is capable of recognising that identity isn't cut-and-dried is unsurprising given his upbringing. He is, after all, a Catholic from a strong Gaelic football background who played senior international soccer for Northern Ireland. He hasn't subscribed to the notion that a player should instantly know the country he wishes to represent.

Thus, given this context and the fact that the Republic and Northern Ireland play against each other tomorrow night, Irish football fans should be able to look at the wider picture. O'Neill, in spite of his stale tactics and weary Brian Clough anecdotes, has been able to do this.

His patient approach to Rice and Obafemi is thoroughly modern, and for that, he should be commended.

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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