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Although the sport was being played in Ireland in the 1860s, it was mainly based in Ulster and it was not until the 1880s that the game spread to other areas of the country. The Leinster Football Association was formed in 1892 as the game became more popular in the area. Clubs from outside the Belfast area thought that the IFA favoured Ulster based clubs and when the IFA reneged on a promise to play the Irish Cup semi-final replay in Dublin and instead scheduled the match for Belfast a meeting of southern associations and clubs was arranged and on 1 June 1921, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was formed in Molesworth Hall in Dublin. The League of Ireland was established in 1921, with eight teams taking part. St. James's Gate F.C. won the first title, and they were also winners of the first FAI Cup, then called the Free State Cup, in 1922. In 1923, the FAI was recognised by FIFA as the governing body of the Irish Free State under the name Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) and at the 1924 Olympics, the Irish Free State made their international debut. On 28 May at the Stade Olympique, they beat Bulgaria 1–0, with Paddy Duncan scoring the team's first ever goal. As a result of this they qualified for the quarter-finals. On 14 June 1924, the Irish Free State made their home debut against the United States, who had embarked on a brief European tour after competing in the same Olympics. Ed Brookes scored a hat-trick in a 3–1 home win at Dalymount Park. The Irish Free State did not play their next game until 21 March 1926. This was an away game against Italy which they lost 3–0. In subsequent years the status of the Olympic Games football competition was downgraded and as a result this game is widely regarded as the Irish Free State's first official game.

The 1930s saw the erosion of Dublin's dominance in the league. During the 20s, Bohemians, St James's Gate, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers had a monopoly over the domestic game, but Dundalk and Sligo Rovers both won championships while Cork F.C. and Waterford collected FAI Cups as football spread to the provinces. The Second World War curtailed international matches between 1939 and 1946, but league football went ahead with Cork United F.C. dominating, winning four titles between 1940 and 1945. On the international front, England won a match at Dalymount Park 1–0, but Ireland got their revenge three years later when they became the first 'foreign' side to defeat England on English soil. Ireland won the Goodison Park encounter 2–0.

In 1950, FIFA directed both the FAI and IFA to pick players only from within their own boundaries rather than picking players from all over the island. FIFA also ruled that the FAI's team would be known as the Republic of Ireland with the IFA's side being called Northern Ireland. Up to that point, both Associations referred to their teams as 'Ireland'. The Dublin based clubs reasserted their dominance with only Cork United capable of challenging their dominance. 1958 saw a League of Ireland side enter European competition for the first time with Shamrock Rovers going out 9–2 on aggregate to Manchester United in the first round of the European Cup.

In the 1960s Waterford United became one of the league's most successful clubs as they won three titles during the decade, though Shamrock Rovers were the team of the 60s. The Hoops won six FAI Cups in a row during the 60s, a feat that has never been repeated. In 1969 the FAI decided to appoint a national team manager instead of a team of selectors. Mick Meagan became the first manager. They still failed to win any of their qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup. Ireland finished bottom of their qualification group for the 1972 European Championship, ending Meagan's tenure as manager. Liam Tuohy briefly replaced him. Johnny Giles became the Republic of Ireland's first ever player-manager before the 1976 European Championship qualifiers, but the side again failed to qualify. During the qualifiers for the 1980 European Championship, the Republic of Ireland took on Northern Ireland in a historic first ever meeting between the two sides. A 0–0 draw at Dalymount Park was marred by rioting in Dublin on the day of the match. Domestically, no team really dominated as the popularity of the game began to diminish. The major achievement was Dundalk's progress to the last 16 of the European Cup in 1979 when they eventually went out to Glasgow Celtic.

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