Wales, Republic of Ireland kick off UEFA Nations League amid eligibility debates
A football match is expected to break out on Thursday evening in the Cardiff City Stadium. Wales and Ireland get their UEFA Nations League campaigns underway. You could be forgiven for forgetting about this game. Declan Rice and David Brooks' international status dominates the conversation with little focus on the football. Too bad, as there's a real opportunity here. The winner can claim the catbird's seat in the group because Denmark's federation [the third nation involved] finds itself embroiled in an internal row with its players. The current Danish squad comprises uncapped lower-leaguers and futsal players managed by an interim coach.
Both Rice and Brooks were born in England. Rice's grandparents hail from Cork, Brooks' mother is Welsh. Given their comparatively small populations [Ireland claims around 4.7 million inhabitants, Wales 3 million] it's little surprise both nations tap into the diaspora. It's been ongoing almost as long as international football.
Brooks' situation may soon be resolved. Once upon a time, the Warrington-born star withdrew from the Wales U20 squad for the Toulon tournament to join up with [and star for] England's in the same event. A few months later, he was back with Wales, accepting three caps with the senior side. He's in the current squad. His participation against Ireland or Denmark ends any possibility of another U-turn.
Things aren't so straightforward for Ireland and Rice. The Londoner donned Ireland green from U16 level right up to winning three caps for Martin O'Neill's squad. Those senior caps came in friendlies, however. Until Rice plays in a competitive match, he can switch to his native England.
Rice's decision to reconsider his international future sparked controversy in Ireland. Former Irish international Kevin Kilbane believes Rice made his bed and should lie in it. Current star James McClean sounded off, too, saying that representing your country should be an honour.
McClean was caught in an eligibility controversy several years back. Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, he [like many] identifies as Irish. Under the Good Friday Agreement signed by representatives from Ireland and Britain, every Northern Irish citizen can choose to be Irish or British. McClean's hardly the first to take advantage of the treaty. The Stoke man is correct. International football's the greatest honour but Rice should be given the time to decide which nation is right for him.
While the row rumbles on, there'll be a very good match taking place. Eleven months ago Ireland ended Wales' World Cup hopes with a [wait for it] James McClean goal in Cardiff. Now comes Wales' opportunity for revenge. The group winner enters a playoff for Nations League honours and a place in Euro 2020.
The Rice affair will be settled in its own good time but both countries should turn to the task at hand. A three-nation double round-robin comprises just four games apiece. Three points carry a great weight. Getting off to the best possible start tonight is in both countries' best interest.