Football in Northern Ireland has come a long way since when, on 18 November 1880 at the Queen's Hotel in Belfast and by invitation of John McAlery of Cliftonville FC, representatives of Northern Irish clubs playing under Scottish Football Association rules agreed to form their own body. The Irish Football Association (IFA) was thus born, the fourth oldest in the world, which would oversee qualification for three FIFA World Cup tournaments, and Northern Ireland's first-ever EURO final round in 2016.
Nurturing domestic football was a primary early function of the IFA. At the association's inception, it was also agreed that a national cup competition would be organised, the aims of which were to "promote, foster and develop in all its branches the game of association football within Ireland". Subscriptions were set at two guineas per club, and the inaugural event was won by Moyola Park FC who beat Cliftonville 1-0 in the final.
The following year saw Ireland make their international debut against England at the Knock cricket ground in east Belfast. Despite a resounding 13-0 defeat, the gate receipts of £9 19s 7d provided some financial comfort.
Along with the political division of Ireland in 1921 came the formation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), established to manage the game in the newly formed Irish Free State. Despite this upheaval and its reduced jurisdiction, the IFA dutifully persevered in promoting and running the sport.
This steadfastness of purpose was required once more to deal with the turmoil of the Second World War, and more latterly the political troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. But throughout its long history the IFA has played a significant role in the continuous development of the game, both in Europe and further afield. It has also produced some wonderful players.
Billy Gillespie, Elisha Scott, Peter Docherty, Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings, the inimitable George Best and Norman Whiteside – the youngest player to grace the FIFA World Cup when he featured at the 1982 tournament aged 17 years and 42 days – were all players of the highest calibre. They had a tremendous influence on the game, and while they mostly all made their names in the leagues of England and Scotland, their hearts remained in Ireland.
David Healy remains Northern Ireland's top goalscorer. At the end of 2012 the striker had scored 36 goals in 94 games. Thirteen of those strikes came in 12 UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying matches, and Healy's magnificent achievement was subsequently honoured by UEFA with a special award presented by President Michel Platini.
Northern Ireland's success in qualifying for World Cup final rounds is a great source of pride. The country has made three appearances in the World Cup finals: Sweden (1958), Spain (1982) and Mexico (1986). To progress to the latter stages on two of those occasions left the IFA feeling on top of the world. This euphoria was replicated when Northern Ireland, under manager Michael O'Neill, qualified for their first-ever EURO in 2016, after defeating Greece 3-1 at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park on 8 October 2015. Their opening game at the EURO, a 1-0 loss to Poland on 12 June, was followed by a historic 2-0 win against Ukraine four days later.
Three hours after Northern Ireland had lost their final group match 1-0 to World Cup holders Germany, they discovered that they had qualified for the last 16, as Turkey's win over the Czech Republic meant that O'Neill's men would go through as one of the four best third-placed finishers.
Northern Ireland's passionate fans left a legacy behind after they eventually called time upon their party following elimination through a single-goal defeat against Wales. Supporters' representatives were welcomed back to Paris by mayor Anne Hidalgo, who presented them with the City of Paris medal in recognition of how they "charmed and impressed by their kindness, their chants and their good humour."
Over the years, the IFA has furnished football with some of the leading lights in the administration of the game. Two notable individuals are Joe McBride, who represented the IFA from the 1920s to the 1950s, becoming president in 1957 aged 93, and Harry H Cavan. Cavan was European vice-president of FIFA from 1960 to 1990 and was instrumental in promoting the coaching and general development of football, particularly among emerging nations.
It is not only the players and officials who have made significant contributions, but also the clubs. Linfield FC and Cliftonville are both over 100 years old, have proud and memorable histories, and are helping to ensure that the sport continues to flourish in Northern Ireland. In June 2016, David Martin was elected IFA president.
Northern Ireland was selected to host the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship in August 2017, and the women's game is flourishing under the IFA's governance. The IFA will also host the UEFA European Under-19 Championship final round in 2020.
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