Why are there two football teams for Northern Ireland and Ireland? (Explained!)

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Alex PT

There are two football teams Northern Ireland and Ireland because they are two different countries. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, while Ireland is an independent country. The Irish Football Association (IFA) was founded in 1880 and initially governed football on the entire island of Ireland.

Why are there two football teams for Ireland as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Why are there two football teams for Ireland as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

1. Different Political Entities:

The primary reason for the existence of two separate teams is that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are two distinct political entities. The Republic of Ireland, also known simply as Ireland, is a sovereign nation. On the other hand, Northern Ireland is one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. This political distinction is reflected in the football domain as well.

2. The Partition of Ireland in 1921:

The split in football aligns with the partition of Ireland in 1921, which resulted in a predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and a predominantly Catholic South forming the independent Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland. The political split led to the creation of two separate football associations.

3. Formation of Separate Football Associations:

Historically, the Irish Football Association (IFA), founded in 1880, was the governing body for football across the entire island of Ireland. However, following the partition, disputes led to a split in 1921. Those who felt represented by the new Irish Free State formed the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS), which later morphed into today’s Football Association of Ireland (FAI), governing football in the Republic of Ireland.

4. International Recognition:

Both football associations commenced operation separately, with each organizing its leagues and national team. In 1923, The FAIFS, now FAI, was accepted into FIFA, while the IFA has always been recognised by both FIFA and UEFA as the governing body for football in Northern Ireland. Today, both teams participate in international competitions separately.

Northern IrelandRepublic of Ireland
Political EntityPart of the U.K.Independent nation
Football AssociationIrish Football Association (IFA)Football Association of Ireland (FAI)
International RecognitionFIFA and UEFA recognitionFIFA recognition

5. Resolution of the “Players’ Dilemma”:

For many years, a contentious issue was the eligibility of players from Northern Ireland to play for the Republic, due to the latter’s policy of considering anyone born on the island of Ireland as a potential citizen. However, a reciprocal agreement in 2010 between the IFA and FAI mostly resolved this issue, setting specific residency and citizenship criteria for representing a team.

Why is Northern Ireland not part of the Republic of Ireland?

The division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can be traced back to a complex mix of historical, religious, and political factors:

  1. Colonial History: The division can be traced back to the colonization of Ireland by England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The northern part of Ireland had a significant Protestant population, mainly of Scottish and English descent, who identified with the British Crown.
  2. Religious Divide: Religion played a significant role in the division. Northern Ireland’s Protestant population largely identified as Unionists or Loyalists and wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland largely identified as Nationalists and sought a united Ireland.
  3. Partition of Ireland: In 1921, Ireland was partitioned, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty established two separate entities: Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland), which gained independence.
  4. Conflict and Troubles: The division led to decades of conflict known as “The Troubles” (late 1960s to late 1990s). It was characterized by political violence and sectarian tensions between Unionists and Nationalists.
  5. Good Friday Agreement: The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a peace accord, helped bring an end to The Troubles. It established devolved government in Northern Ireland and allowed for a potential future reunification of Ireland if a majority of Northern Ireland’s population desires it.
  6. Cultural Identity: Many in Northern Ireland still identify as British, while others identify as Irish. This cultural and national identity factor continues to shape the region’s political landscape.
  7. International Agreements: The division is reinforced by international agreements, including the Good Friday Agreement and the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, subject to UK governance and laws.

What is the relationship like between the republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Both nations get on quite well and there is no report of any major rancor except few political grumbles anytime the republic of Ireland attempts to interfere in the politics of Northern Ireland. Football clashes between the two nations usually bring fierce rivalry and holiday visits to either side are usually welcomed with open arms. In addition to that, both nations come together as s single team in rugby and cricket which is a testament that there is no major antipathy shared between the two nations as a separate unit.

How good is the republic of Ireland national team in men’s football?

How good is the republic of Ireland national team in men's football

Ireland is a country with a relatively low population and its football league can be categorized as a semi-professional one. However, the country’s football national team has been consistently performing at a higher level for several decades. They have also produced superstars in the England premier league such as Robbie Keane, Liam Brady, and the legendary to mention a few, who have produced top performances against football giants like Brazil, Italy, and England.

Is there any likelihood that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will reunite?

Politically, there is a fair chance of an eventual reunion between the countries. The confusion surrounding the Brexit negotiations has increased the support for an all-Irish unification which might come to reality in the coming years. However, this has no direct impact on the sport as the two nations still join heads together as a single team in rugby and cricket. Football is the only sport where they have two different teams but it might likely change if the reunion is eventually actualized.

Have both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland ever faced off in a football match?

Yes! Since the split between the nations back in the 1920s, both nations have faced each other in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the UEFA European Championships qualifiers, and some high-profile charity and international friendly games. In total, they have faced off on eleven different occasions across the three competitions stated above. the last encounter was an international friendly game played on the 15th of October 2018. For the record, the Republic of Ireland won four (4) out of the eleven(11) while their northern Irish counterparts won Two with the remaining six(6) ending in draws.


Below is a compiled list of frequently asked questions on why there is two national football tea in Ireland as the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Let’s take a look at them!

Why is the Irish football team called the Republic of Ireland?

According to the FIFA directive in 1953, it was decreed that the FAI team must be called the Republic of Ireland while the IFA team would be called Northern Ireland in any official competition or competitive matches played by the two teams 

Can northern Irish players play for the Republic of Ireland?

Yes! The FAI victory in the court of arbitration for sport over a landmark case allowed all players born to play for the Republic of Ireland team.

What is the biggest sporting activity in Northern Ireland?

The most practiced sports in northern Ireland are cycling, swimming, jogging, and other sporting activities that involve walking for recreation.

Has Ireland ever won a major tournament?

No! They have qualified and participated in three European Championships in 1988, 2012, and 2016 and also in the FIFA World Cups in 1990, 1994, and 2002 respectively. The furthest they had ever gone in these tournaments was a quarter-final in the Italian ’90 FIFA World Cup.

Final words

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are two different countries after an infamous split several decades ago. The Republic of Ireland operates as a sovereign state while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, The two nations have separate football teams while they come together as one to form a team in other sports like rugby and cricket.

The resources in this article were put together to answer your queries about why Ireland and Northern Ireland have separate football teams. As we come to the end of this informative article, our comment section is open if you have more questions regarding the article topic.




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