“We were aware of the political situation in Ireland before the game, but football is a powerful force that can unite nations and cultures” - Jairzinho

Since the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the creation of two countries – and later, much more importantly, two football teams – there have been sides that have played the game with players from both north and south of the border.

For a while there were, in effect, two ‘Ireland’ teams, players picked with flighty disregard for international rules from either side of the divide, to the extent that players routinely represented both Northern Ireland and what was then called the Irish Free State. An ‘All-Ireland XI’ played two games against an ‘England XI’ as part of the An Tóstal festivals in 1955 and 1956, while a team made up of players from north and south took part in a benefit game for Terry Neill in 1970. However, perhaps the most remarkable example came in 1973, when an ‘all-Ireland’ team played world champions Brazil in Dublin, under the banner of Shamrock Rovers.

It is, on any number of levels, extraordinary that a game involving a combined Irish side took place when it did. In 1973 the Troubles were near their height: almost 500 people died the previous year, Bloody Sunday and the publication of the Widgery Report in April 1972 that essentially exonerated the British Army from any wrongdoing had heightened tensions, and other sporting events scheduled to take place in Ireland – notably a couple of Five Nations games – were left unfulfilled, such was the fear of violence. So for anyone even to suggest this game seems utterly implausible.

Yet, despite the wider social issues, there was certainly the will for a united Ireland team from plenty within the game. It was suggested in 1969 to merge the two sides and a report commissioned by the Football Association of Ireland in May 1973 recommended considering it. In his book The Irish Soccer Split, Cormac Moore writes: “In the build up to the Terry Neill benefit match, George Best reiterated his call for an all-Ireland international team, claiming he had “talked to several players from the south and they all want to see a full Irish team. I know the Northern Ireland players think the same way.’’ 

“It would have done more than politics to bring the people together,” said Derek Dougan, the Belfast-born striker who was one of the driving forces behind the Brazil game. “I genuinely believe that, like rugby, there should be a team from the 32 counties. There is nothing political about that – it’s just a personal opinion.”

Yet political problems – and of course the fear of violence – did get in the way of a permanent football union. The difference with this all-Ireland v Brazil game seemed to be that for many it was less a political statement and more a chance to play against the reigning world champions. “I thought it was a good idea,” says John Giles, one of the players involved in the game. “There was a huge political situation, because the two associations didn’t agree with the match being played, or they didn’t support it, but we were footballers. People like Pat Jennings, Martin O’Neill – I felt similar to them, that it was an honour to play with them. It was just an opportunity to play Brazil. Also a lot of people forget there were charities [Unicef and the Irish Cancer Society] involved.”

The game was to be the denouement of a Brazilian tour around Europe and North Africa, coming after friendlies against Algeria, Italy, West Germany, Scotland and others, a tour that had a couple of motivations. Brazil wanted to acclimatise as best they could for the World Cup in Germany the following year, but perhaps a more influential factor was the president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation João Havelange, who was sniffing around for votes ahead of the Fifa presidential election, scheduled for the following year when Stanley Rous was set to retire.

And this was at least in part how the game came to be. Louis Kilcoyne – a rather well-connected man who was a Fifa agent, future president of the FAI and, as it happened, the brother-in-law of John Giles; his family owned Shamrock Rovers,  – was the organiser of a Republic of Ireland tour in Brazil the previous year. It was there that he learned of Brazil’s itinerary for the following summer, so he secured an audience with Havelange and promised Ireland’s vote in the Fifa election if he tacked on an extra game in Dublin. To add some spice to his offer, he also promised it would be an all-Ireland team, which – given the socio-political problems that might have come along with that – does smack a little of claiming you are fluent in a foreign language in a job interview. You make the promise first, then work out how actually to do it later.

“I am particularly pleased and honoured that Brazil will be the first international side to play a team composed of players from all parts of Ireland,” said Havelange, displaying a slightly loose grasp on the history of Irish football. “We look forward to playing in Dublin where we wind up our European trip with what we consider to be the ‘match of the tour’.”

The task of recruiting players for the game wasn’t especially difficult, even though this wasn’t exactly prime football playing time. “To be honest, I was on my holidays,” says Giles. “It was in the middle of the summer, so I didn’t want to get involved in it too much. I knew it was happening and I said I’d play in it, and that was it.” Still, despite this being Brazil without Pelé (who had retired in 1971), who would turn down the chance to play Jairzinho, Rivelino and co? “You just wanted the chance – the honour – to play against these sorts of players,” Bryan Hamilton, the future manager of Northern Ireland who was at the time playing for Ipswich Town, told RTÉ years later. Dougan rounded up some colleagues from the north while Kilcoyne took care of those from the south and an impressive cast of characters was assembled. Joining Giles, Dougan and Hamilton were Pat Jennings, Martin O’Neill, Terry Conroy, Don Givens, Mick Martin and others: in all, seven internationals from the north and twelve from the south.

However, persuading the relevant authorities that the game was a good idea was slightly trickier, particularly the Irish Football Association, who governed Northern Irish football and were always more resistant to the idea of a united team, arguably for their own motives rather than any wider political considerations. “It was the time of the Troubles,” recalled Conroy. “And we wanted to come together and make a statement that people at this level could get on. We knew our associations did not want to power-share. They made positive noises, but kicked the idea into touch.”

“I put the idea of north and south coming together to play Brazil at a meeting in London with the two senior officials of the IFA — Harry Cavan, the president, and Billy Drennan, the secretary,” Dougan told the Sunday Times in 2003. “My hands were wet with the sweat of nervous tension. Here, I thought, we were talking about history in the making, talking about building bridges. Then came the moment I will remember for the rest of my life. Mr Cavan received the news as if a bomb had hit him. I was confronted by a stony silence.” Or, as David Tossell wrote in his biography of Dougan In Sunshine Or In Shadow: “It was as though he had dropped his pants and farted at the president.”

“Cavan informed me tersely that he would put the matter to the IFA,” said Dougan. “Drennan was enthusiastic, but I never heard from either again… Cavan tried to get the match cancelled, purely and simply because he felt it was going to be a precedent; that the north and south were going to come together after that. It was very selfish.”

Cavan didn’t manage to get the game cancelled, partly through Kilcoyle pulling in a family favour by renaming the Irish team a ‘Shamrock Rovers XI’, meaning they weren’t subject to any interference by Cavan or either national association, the game permitted under Fifa international friendly by-laws. The team played in Shamrock’s green and white hoops and were managed by Liam Tuohy, the League of Ireland side’s boss who had also been the Republic’s coach until the end of their recent unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign. Tuohy combined both of those roles with a job as a sales manager for an ice-cream company – not a man one could accuse of being work-shy. 

While many of the players didn’t necessarily regard the game as an overtly political occasion, symbolism abounded. The venue was Lansdowne Road, something of a novelty as most of Ireland’s internationals were held at Dalymount Park in those days and significant given that Lansdowne was usually the home of the Irish rugby team, a side that for its entire history comprised players from north and south. Before kick-off, “A Nation Once Again”, an old Irish folk song with a fairly self-explanatory message, was played, adding to the sense that there was more to this than a mere friendly.

And then the game. Among all of the machinations and politics, it’s almost too easy to forget the actual game, but fortunately for all concerned it was an absolute cracker. Brazil took an early lead through a Paulo Cézar penalty, but the Irish side quickly came back, Dougan and Givens going close before Martin equalised just before the half-hour. Two minutes before half-time, Clodoaldo set up Jairzinho – the World Cup-winner described in the Irish Times report as “always a most threatening figure” – to beat Jennings, then after the break they quickly took a 4-1 lead. Cézar bagged the third with a belter from 25 yards; 10 minutes later Rivelino hooped a pass to Valdomiro, who beat Jennings at the near post.

The Irish side were not done, though, and were actually unlucky not to win the game; a rather giddy Seamus Devlin in the Times reporting that “the Irish boys then produced a brilliant spell of scintillating football… a really heart-throbbing finish in which the Brazilians were put to the pin of their collars.” Hamilton and the midfielder Liam O’Kane were introduced soon after the fourth Brazilian goal and the former began the move that set up the hosts’ second. Hamilton and Conroy linked up on the right, then the ball found its way to Dougan in the middle who beat the keeper Emerson Leão and Ireland smelled blood. “I’d just created a goal for Derek,” said Conroy, “I said to Doog, ‘You owe me one,’” and shortly afterwards he obliged. Another Dougan header nearly added a third, before Conroy was there to force home a loose ball and put the Irish within a single goal. Alas, they couldn’t find an equaliser and indeed had to survive another penalty, this time smartly saved by Jennings from Cézar.

“How long is it since any team managed to score three goals against Brazil?” asked Devlin, the answer to which was “five years”, Yugoslavia being the last to bag a treble against the Selecão in 1968, and despite the result that effusive praise and enthusiasm was the general theme for the Irish side. 

“Certainly, if ever there was a case made for burying the hatchet, as it were, between the associations north and south of the political border, this was it,” wrote Devlin. “All 11 players, and indeed the three substitutes who eventually joined the fray, knitted together as if they had been club mates all their lives.” Dougan said more pithily: “We gave the world champions one hell of a game.” 

Rivellino was impressed too. “Ireland’s best player that day was John Giles,” he said. “He was technically excellent and it’s a shame he never played in a World Cup. We scored the fourth goal but Ireland could have done so. The game could’ve gone either way like that.” Jairzinho enjoyed himself so much that he insisted on celebrating afterwards. “He wanted to come out to a nightclub with the lads,” Conroy told RTÉ, admittedly in a manner that reeks of a line from an after-dinner speech. “All night he was pestering me. He said to me ‘Terry, can you teach me the proper way to dribble.’ What can you say to Jairzinho after that?”

Perhaps even more remarkable than the game actually taking place was that there was no significant fall-out for those involved. No fall-out, that is, apart for Dougan. The forward would never play for his country again after this game, something that he most certainly blamed on those on high, until his death in 2007. “I had been captain of Northern Ireland for the previous four years,” he said, “but after that… I never played again. Cavan told the manager not to pick me.” It is worth noting, however, that Dougan was 35, had not scored in his previous 10 games for Northern Ireland and, to say the least, could be a rather difficult character. 

Terry Neill, the country’s manager at the time, certainly refutes the suggestion that his involvement in the game saw the end of his international career. “That is crap,” he told Tossell. “There was no way I was going to be influenced… Cavan was never involved in team selection; I would never have tolerated that… I just wanted Derek the player but in the end, he was a disruptive influence.” 

After the game, there was a sense that it could lead to an all-Ireland team being a more regular or even permanent occurrence. Various discussions were held over the following few years and positive noises were made by both football associations – on 2 October 1973 “a very lengthy and amicable discussion was held, in stark contrast to many of the failed attempts between both associations in years past,” wrote Moore in The Irish Soccer Split – but various factors prevented it from taking hold. The political situation was undoubtedly one, but slightly more prosaic matters such as the two places available to the two nations at international tournaments available to the two nations and basic naked self-interest were also important.

“I wasn’t optimistic,” says Giles, when asked if he thought the game would have a lasting legacy. “I don’t think anyone was optimistic. It was a game that was very well received and I think over the years players from the north and south would’ve liked a combined Ireland team, but it wasn’t up to the players. The officials didn’t have the same will as the players… The match served its purpose, [but] nothing happened afterwards – there was no further political breakthrough, because neither of the associations backed it. And the only way you get a breakthrough is if the associations get together.

“In my day I would’ve been delighted to have an all-Ireland team, because we had some very good players on both sides. Jennings, Pat Rice, Allan Hunter, Georgie Best, O’Neill, Dougan, eventually Liam Brady, David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton – all of these terrific players. You have all your best players in the one team. I think the majority of players were in favour of that.”

Indeed, when you consider that in the following years Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup in 1982 and 1986 and the Republic made the 1988 European Championships then the World Cup in 1990 and 1994, a united Ireland team could have been quite a force. As it is, games like this, slightly surreal occasions, exist in semi-isolation. And perhaps, for posterity’s sake, that might be for the best.