Losing the World Cup Play-Off to a disputed penalty goal was a gut-wrenching experience for Northern Ireland fans. The faithful supporters who returned from Basel earlier this week might have expected to come home to a country commiserating with its team and reflecting on its achievements, through regional TV, radio and newspapers.
Instead they were faced with provocative demands to back the Republic in its play-off match against Denmark and accusations of sectarianism, based on information that was at least a generation out of date.
The Green and White Army weren’t surprised. They’re used to facing ill-disguised hostility, ignorance and a lack of empathy from sections of the media, including public service broadcasters, whose remit is supposed to be Northern Ireland alone.
The supporters’ hurt feelings are understandable, but do some of their critics have a point? For instance, should Northern Ireland Fans show more generosity and cheer on the country country to their south?
The question not only completely misunderstands the nature of football rivalry; it willfully ignores recent history between the two teams and the current situation as regards player eligibility.
Under highly controversial FIFA rules, the Republic of Ireland is entitled to pick footballers from across the island, and for a number of years its governing body, the FAI, has aggressively recruited young players who are already in the Northern Ireland youth setup.
The consequences are easy to understand and add up to a very simple equation. If the Republic team performs more successfully than Northern Ireland, the share of media attention it commands will increase (particularly north of the border) and players and spectators will head south.
When journalists. politicians and other commentators pompously demand that the Green and White Army supports its neighbours in a World Cup play-off, they’re asking fans to do something that’s blatantly detrimental to their team. More than that - no-one who genuinely has Northern Ireland’s interests at the forefront of their mind could possibly back the Republic in such a critical game.
They might have other motives for making that decision, but the welfare of the IFA’s team is not one of them.
Why should supporters act irrationally, against their own interests, just because people who want to prove their own worthiness, and in whose lives football is usually just a minor background noise, say they should? Is it any wonder the GAWA reacts to this chatter with utter disdain?