Pilots on approach to the Belfast airport sometimes tell passengers to reset their watches to the local time: 1690. Your pilot hadn't said this, but you had heard the story nevertheless, and it had you wondering about the cabbie who'll take you into town, this man who wants to know why you've come to Northern Ireland. Soccer game, you tell him. "Not a seat to be had," he says.
The Republic of Ireland is playing the North, and a loss will keep the Republic from qualifying for the World Cup finals in the U.S. next summer. The North is out of it no matter what. The two sides are playing in Ulster, which is still mourning its dead from the bloodiest month in decades, 27 lives, Catholic and Protestant, lost in October, most of them here in Belfast. People call the murderous conflict "the troubles," in a kind of resigned understatement. "They sadden me greatly," your driver says. "These people causing the troubles, they're not real Irish. They don't have the Gaelic soul. Me, I have no enemies. People may not like me, but I have no enemies."
You begin to form the question in your head: Not that it matters, but are you...? The answer comes before you can ask.
"I grew up on the Shankill Road, where all was red, white and blue—orange to the core," he says, indicating with codes of color and place that he's Protestant. "But if the Republic should go to the Cup finals, I for one won't have a tear in the eye. They're Irish, and I'd wish them well."
Archie Cunningham is your driver's name, and with sport and politics you have broached subjects entangled with much of his life. Luckily, it's a long ride to the hotel, long enough to accommodate all the stories tumbling now into the back seat: How Cunningham had been a crack cyclist once, good enough to win the Tour of Ireland; how he had carried the tri-colored flag of the Republic at the 1972 Olympics for a united Irish team, only to receive threats from hard-liners in the Shankill; how fierce Protestant Unionists had phoned him at home a few years later, on the eve of a St. Patrick's Day race in the South, warning him off competing in it. He went anyway and won the thing. "If I hadn't gone, if I'd allowed myself to be dictated to, I'd have been bothered with calls every night," he says.
By now you are passing the city center, with the ring of hills girdling the sectarian slums of West Belfast to your right. To the left is the shipyard that built the Titanic. Soon Archie is carrying your bags to the front desk. "You and I are going to have a couple of pints of the black stuff before you fly off," he says.
The Irish need only minutes to make friends of strangers. Why do they require centuries to do the same of each other? You will pose this question again and again during your three-day visit to Belfast. You meet John Sugden, an education professor at the University of Ulster who cofounded Belfast United, a mixed-faith youth soccer team that tours the U.S. each summer. He explains that in international rugby and boxing there are all-Ireland teams, encompassing the Catholic South and the largely Protestant North, which is still part of the United Kingdom. Even to that most nationalistic of athletic convocations, the Olympics, Ireland sends simple Irishmen and Irishwomen, people from the North and South, people like Archie Cunningham. Why is soccer different? "It's a working-class game, and most of the troubles are in working-class areas," Sugden says. "So talk of a united team really gets the hackles raised."
Twenty years ago Northern Ireland fielded a team with two of the greatest players in the world, George Best and Pat Jennings. Best was a Protestant striker, Jennings a Catholic goalkeeper, and they roomed together. When the North reached the Cup finals in 1982, virtually all of Ulster, including most of the 40% Catholic minority, rallied to the team. But during the late 1980s, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement pledging greater cooperation between Great Britain and the Republic, Protestant Ulster felt increasingly isolated and began to cling more desperately to symbols of its separateness from the South. About the same time, an Englishman named Jack Charlton took over the Republic's theretofore mediocre team and made a great success of it, going all the way to the final eight of the Cup in 1990. After years of immersion in Gaelic games—parochial pastimes like hurling and Gaelic football—Irish Catholics could now use soccer as well to proclaim their Irishness to the world. Over this span the number of Catholics on the Northern Ireland team dwindled, and its successes on the field became more modest. And the mood at Windsor Park, where Northern Ireland plays, became increasingly sectarian.
Windsor Park is set amid the redbrick row houses of the Village, a Unionist stronghold in South Belfast. The stadium is home to Linfield, a soccer club that suited up its first Catholic player only last year, largely because of pressure from commercial sponsors. In 1991 a terrorist grenade exploded at one end of the stadium among supporters of Cliftonville, a Catholic team. While the Irish Republican Army and its Unionist counterparts tend to spare sport, the inflammations that the terrorists from both sides cause are undressed sores, and soccer games with sectarian implications routinely reinfect them. Even as they cheer a Northern Ireland team composed of players from both faiths, Protestant fans sing such songs as The Sash My Father Wore, with its lyrics about being "up to our knees in Fenian [Catholic] blood."
Sugden explains: "It was a kind of push-me, pull-you situation. Catholics weren't made to feel welcome in Windsor Park, and Big Jack was working this miracle down in Dublin. The last few years I've asked my students, 'Who supports Northern Ireland and who supports the Republic?' And you can almost run a line between them—the Protestants support the North and the Catholics support the Republic. I've done this on too many occasions for it to be down to chance."