Qiuqiu Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle

Qiuqiu

I’ve just been on a quick trip to Northern Ireland to see relatives but I could not get away from football.

For one thing the Northern Irish are mad about the game, passionate about the Premier League and the big two from Glasgow.

Walk around an Ulster town and you will see more football shirts than in a comparable English town. Travel to Liverpool or Manchester United for a home game and you cannot miss the many Irish accents around.

As it happened, all Ulster eyes were fixed on the telly on Sunday as there was an Old Firm game, a classically passionate affair won by Celtic, the team Irish Catholics gravitate to. Rangers are the Ulster Protestants’ club of choice, their red white and blue colours chiming perfectly with their Union flags.

The Ulster connection with the Glasgow derby remains Qiuqiu strong: Celtic manager Neil Lennon is Northern Irish and famously resigned from captaining its national team after Loyalist death threats (he is Roman Catholic); Celtic fans fly Irish tricolours.

The Northern Protestants, predominantly descendants of 17th century English and Scottish colonisers, support Northern Ireland as their national team while the Catholics cheer the Republic of Ireland, established in 1924 after the island’s partition.

As a classic marker of the complexity of this island’s politics, Northern Ireland wear green and their badge is a Celtic cross with shamrocks, all symbols of Catholics and the South eschewed by hardcore Unionists who assert their British identity. Confused? You are not the only one.

Northern Ireland has traditionally been the stronger but the Republic enjoyed a golden age under England hero Jack Charlton, reaching the last eight of the European Championship and the World Cup. At Euro 2016 both Irelands reached the last 16.

Currently the North is ranked by FIFA slightly …