In the normal run of things, I don’t pay too much attention to the Norn Iron football team. Even if I was that way inclined, their form or lack thereof could cause the most patriotic Ulster Scot to lose interest after a while. But tomorrow night there’s a treat on at Windsor. Yes, as part of a bumper round of international friendlies, the north is hosting Israel. Definitely a match in the “can’t they both lose?” category.
This was being discussed on Talk Back earlier, since the good folks of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign were not, it’s fair to say, altogether enamoured with the fixture, and were protesting outside the IFA headquarters. In response to this, we had interviews with a representative from the IFA, and that mad loyalist with ginger hair who’s always being interviewed on behalf of the Norn Iron supporters. Both of them were adamant that they wanted politics kept out of sport. This was, they said, their bedrock principle. But I don’t think it entirely works like that.
As a rule, I’m a bit cautious about sporting boycotts. If athletes don’t want to go to Zimbabwe or China, of course that’s a matter for them and they have every right to follow their conscience. On the other hand, deadbeat politicians are in the habit of calling on sportsmen to take this or that action as a fig leaf for their own inactivity – see the Foreign Office’s antics over England playing cricket with Zimbabwe. Historically, though, South Africa was a different case as sport in South Africa was run on racist lines. Once segregation and white supremacy were removed from SA sport, so too was the boycott.
That was an example of a good reason. There’s a good reason too in this case, which is a good deal more immediate than disapproval of this or that Israeli policy. You see, there is a Palestinian national football team. Via the Palestine Football Federation, it’s a member of FIFA, and has been recognised by the world governing body since 1998. Yet the team faces severe ongoing problems, most notably an inability to play either home or away fixtures as a result of restrictions imposed by the occupying power – surely that counts as bringing politics into sport. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to think twice about playing fixtures against Israel. Indeed, Brazil has refused to play Israel on precisely those grounds.
Worth mentioning, also, that we’re not talking here about a World Cup or Euro qualifying fixture, where you have to play whoever you’re drawn against. We’re talking about a friendly, which is taking place because the IFA issued an invitation to its Israeli counterpart. And of course, having done so, the IFA will not want to lose either face or revenue, so the match will go ahead. Well, at least there is a fair stockpile of Israeli flags in loyalist areas of Belfast. Should make the away supporters feel welcome.