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Obnoxious spectators in Northern Ireland are no more obnoxious than they are anywhere else, but in the North their misbehavior is cast in a sectarian light. Anywhere else in Britain or Europe, they would be called hooligans, but since they are inevitably either Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, their vandalism and rioting become political statements.
After all-Protestant Linfield—winners of the Irish League soccer championship 10 of the last 14 years—plays an away game in a Catholic section of Belfast, the team's fans meet in the middle of town and wait for a police battalion that escorts them from the area to avoid trouble.
According to the draw for last year's Irish Football Association Cup, Linfield was scheduled to play Donegal Celtic, a team supported primarily by Catholics, at Suffolk Road, Donegal's home field, on Feb. 17. But citing the need for public order (Suffolk Road holds only about 400 people), the Irish Football Association switched the match to Windsor Park, Linfield's home field, with a capacity of 25,000. Officials of the IFA said that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had advised them that allowing Linfield fans to march through the Catholic area around Suffolk Road waving the Union Jack and singing Unionist songs could provoke violence.
So the game was played at Windsor Park, in a Unionist section near the border between West and South Belfast. There were about 3,000 Donegal Celtic fans and 8,000 Linfield supporters in the stands. Donegal fans wore green and white and waved tricolors; Linfield's were dressed in blue and brandished Union Jacks. Sectarian chants started before the game. "Dirty orange bastards," yelled the Donegal section. "Away, away, away with the Pope and the IRA," shouted the Linfield fans. They then began throwing rocks and bottles at each other, and the police fired plastic bullets into the crowd. Sixty-three people were injured in the fighting. Outside the stadium, buses and cars were hijacked and burned. John Hall, the Donegal Celtic's secretary, later vowed that his club, which is in the inter-meditate league, would never play senior league soccer in Northern Ireland again.
But in those occasional cases when a soccer team represented more than one neighborhood, the 1982 and '86 Northern Ireland World Cup teams, for example, it has been supported by both Protestants and Catholics. "After we beat Spain to qualify for the World Cup finals in 1982,1 remember the telegrams," says Armstrong, who scored the winning goal in that match. "We got one from Ian Paisley [the Protestant evangelist and Unionist] and Cardinal O'Fiach [the Catholic archbishop of Ireland]. I think that's when it dawned on the players. That's when I realized that we crossed the divide. We were Northern Irish and proud of it. We were playing for Northern Ireland."
In the early '70s, at the height of the Troubles, foreign athletes, especially those from England, Scotland and Wales, would not compete in Northern Ireland. They were afraid they would become targets of the violence they had read about in newspapers and seen on television. Cycling races, field hockey matches and tennis tournaments were cancelled. From 1970 until 1973, Northern Ireland teams played all international soccer and rugby matches at away sites.
For all of the athletes' fears and all the aborted matches, sports events have been relatively safe in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years. Bombs have exploded before soccer matches (usually after warnings) and at empty rugby pitches, and for a while the IRA bombed one golf course every month, but usually in the middle of the night. The IRA claimed that it wasn't after golfers but the courses themselves—symbols of privilege.
It would be naive to think that terrorists in Northern Ireland have a respect for sports. But during the Irish Civil War in 1922, a full schedule of Gaelic football matches was played. Players would fire guns at each other before the game, play the match without incident, then resume shooting after the game. And in a more sublime example of cooperation, in those rare cases when Protestants and Catholics have played Gaelic football on the same team on Sunday, kickoff times have been delayed so that players of both faiths could go to church. Reid, the Irish rugby manager, says, "The rugby union was formed in 1874 when there was no partition. If politicians want to partition the country in the meantime, it has nothing to do with us. If we let politics bother sports, we couldn't play anywhere."
If nothing has brought people together in Northern Ireland like sports, nothing in sports has brought them together like success. When Barry McGuigan won the WBA featherweight title in June 1985, bonfires were set in both the North and the Republic. Some in Belfast called McGuigan the new messiah. He was a Catholic from the Republic, from Clones in County Monaghan, married to a Protestant, wore blue trunks, not orange or green, and carried a flag with a dove on it into the ring. Danny Boy was played before his fights instead of God Save the Queen or the Irish national anthem. And although one of those celebratory bonfires touched off a blaze at the Clones house in which McGuigan was born, at least the flames were from bipartisan fires.
The success of the '82 and '86 World Cup teams is still having unifying effects. Pat Jennings, the goalkeeper on those teams and a Catholic, often speaks to mixed groups in Ballymacarrett. Armstrong returns to Belfast every summer to coach soccer clinics in depressed areas—Catholic depressed areas and Protestant depressed areas. "That never happened 10 years ago," Armstrong says. "Protestant coaches are now welcomed in Catholic areas and Catholic coaches are welcomed in Protestant areas. We're all heroes to the boys."