It was John M McAlery, a Belfast merchant, who introduced football to Ireland in 1878, having discovered it during a trip to Edinburgh in Scotland. But it was only on 1 June 1921 that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was formally organised in Dublin. In 1923 the 'home' countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, recognised the new association in the south following pressure from FIFA. At that point the words 'Free State' were included in the official title.
Although a team representing the south was entered for the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924, it was not until March 1926 that the new body was involved in its first full international, a 3-0 defeat by Italy in Turin. The team played their first FIFA World Cup qualifying match in February 1934, drawing 4-4 against Belgium at Dublin's Dalymount Park.
Since then, times have changed very much for the Irish at international and administrative levels. The Republic of Ireland have qualified for three of the last seven World Cup tournaments, the highlight being a quarter-final appearance in Italy in 1990, when they lost by a single goal to the hosts in Rome. Former England international Jack Charlton, himself a World Cup winner, was manager in 1990 and again in 1994, where the Irish were beaten by the Netherlands in the last 16 in the United States.
Under Charlton, the Republic also got to the 1988 UEFA European Championship finals in West Germany, once more being eliminated by the Dutch. At the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, Mick McCarthy's side produced some scintillating displays and were denied a last-eight place only in a penalty shoot-out defeat by Spain. McCarthy resigned in November 2002 and it would be a decade before the Republic reached another showpiece event, with veteran Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni guided them to UEFA EURO 2012.
In 2016, under the stewardship of manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane, the Republic once again reach the EURO final round in France.
Many Irishmen learned their football trade in the Republic before departing for foreign fields, where fame and legendary status awaited them. John Carey became one of the most famous Manchester United FC captains of all time, as did Roy Keane over 50 years later. From an Irish viewpoint, Carey's finest hour was a balmy afternoon in 1949 when he led the Republic of Ireland to a 2-0 win against England at Everton FC's Goodison Park in Liverpool – England's first loss on home soil to a foreign country.
Others were Charlie Hurley (Sunderland AFC), John Giles (Leeds United AFC), Liam Brady, a hero with Arsenal FC in England and Juventus in Italy, and Paul McGrath, one of the most cultured players to wear the green shirt. Since the turn of the century six players – Stephen Staunton, Kevin Kilbane, Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and John O'Shea – have all made more than 100 appearances for Ireland while Keane has smashed the national-team goalscoring record, finding the net over 60 times for his country.
On the domestic front, the league championship and FAI Cup were first contested in 1921/22 and resulted in a double triumph for St James's Gate. Shamrock Rovers FC entered the league the following season and claimed the title at the first attempt. The Hoops are Ireland's most successful side with 17 championships and 24 FAI Cups – both records. The inaugural league campaign involved eight clubs and it was in 1985/86 that a two-divisional structure was introduced. Presently there are 12 teams in the Premier Division and eight in the First Division, both of which now run from spring to autumn.
In 2016, Dundalk FC became the first Irish side to reach the play-off round of the UEFA Champions League after their 3–1 aggregate win over FC BATE Borisov. They then added to that bit of history when they defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel 1-0 in the Europa League to become the first Irish side to win a group stage game in a European competition.
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