Irish Times - Just say No: there is a lot at stake

By Tom Humphries

Friday, December 24, 1999

31/5/99: Last week was a strange and, in many ways, sad week for sport. From a distance, it was a week when money and expediency ruled as usual. Nothing jarred, however, quite like the weasel, coward words from UEFA as they spoke about their willingness to let Ireland and Yugoslavia play football next Saturday. UEFA didn't see any problems relating to player safety.

This was the week when Slobodan Milosevic, the head of one of the states involved, was declared a war criminal. In the business of the team which represents his country playing football in a UEFA competition, UEFA cannot see beyond the issue of player safety.

This was the week when 12,100 people turned up for a Peace Match at Lansdowne Road and we shuddered at the prospect of three times that number presenting themselves next Saturday to be entertained by the footballers of Yugoslavia. Sport and politics don't mix they'll bleat as they funnel into the ground. Sport is an impossibly self-centred, myopic business. The higher the level at which you play, the more selfish you need be. It's a constant wonder to those of us paid to write about sports people how the participants at the top level of professional games pass through life like swaddled babies. Everything gets done for them. Including their thinking.

The FAI, in refusing hospitality, flag-waving and anthems and denying TV coverage to their Yugoslav counterparts, have come as far as they feel they can go. Pat Quigley, Bernard O'Byrne and Mick McCarthy have a sense of decency into which this obscene fixture sits badly. Yet players cannot be excused their right to think for themselves. Some of us would wish them (players and officials, as our representatives) to go that step further and withdraw unilaterally from this game. It is a lot to ask, but there is a lot at stake.

There has been an eloquently expressed resentment at the moral burden being placed on the FAI, and in that the FAI are right; the Government which monitors our grudging admission of Kosovar refugees has shamefully washed its hands of the issues relating to a game of football between Kosovo's tormentor state and our country.

Unfortunately, the cowardice of the Government on the issue leaves the FAI and the players in a position where the onus is on them as individuals. Football is an expression of normality, a life-enhancing celebration of well-being. Set against the slow, systematic slaughter of a nation, though, it is a trivial thing. Are we going to elevate the need for three points, the need to be at the European finals, the need to do our best for Irish football above our moral standards?

It is right and proper that the FAI have refused television pictures to Yugoslavia, right and proper that they will not be extended the clammy hand of hospitality which sporting blazers the world over expect, right that there should be no Yugoslav national anthem played at the ground. Yet if all those things are indisputably right, is it right to play football?

What are we doing here? On the news pages we shall record the extermination of entire villages in Kosovo by Serb forces, we shall note the increasingly indiscriminate bombing of Belgrade, Novy Said and Kosovo itself by NATO, we shall publish the pictures of tangled buildings and mangled lives. And on the sports pages we shall carry news of Niall Quinn's near miss and Damien Duff's goal and analyse the implications for our advancement. No thanks.

In Belgrade, will they celebrate a famous victory, will they write up the story as a symbol of the robust health of the nation, as proof that things are as normal in some places, why, look at the photos of our Yugoslavia playing football with Ireland? Football! See!

Do our players have no feelings on this issue?

Has the use of the word refugee somehow led us to believe that the people in the tented squalor in Macedonia and Albania are victims of some natural disaster. They are the victims of war crimes, deporting themselves from their country rather than stay and be killed.

They tell tales of Serb neighbours painting the words Srpska kuca (Serb house) on their front doors to spare themselves the jackboot in the night. They tell of being herded out of their towns and villages. Lines of police and army. Serb neighbours with curtains drawn or heads down. They tell of the disappearance and presumed mass murder of their menfolk.

In 1970, when the South African rugby and cricket teams set sail for this part of the world, great and justified was the sense of outrage among us that the nation which gave the world apartheid should seek to use sport as a means of acceptance. It was wrong then for our rugby team to play South Africa. It was always wrong and self-serving for our sports people to go to that place while apartheid persisted. In playing games, and thus permitting the appearance of normality, we colluded with apartheid.

We are being asked to collude again. Last week, in a Sunday paper, Yugoslav football officials were expressing their satisfaction that the Dublin fixture would go ahead. It would be a chance, they said, to show that we are all human. Unfortunately, their team represents a state which doesn't esteem the humanity of Kosovans.

Here is what Milan Zivandonovic had to say. Maybe he even believed it: ". . . And this is our motivation. We want to show the world that we are human beings, not monsters, that we are a peaceful people who respect people of all nations and religions.

"The best way to express that is through our football. I think the Irish and Serbian people are very alike. Money is not important to us, but it's what you have in your head and your heart that is far more important than money. I am glad that our first football match since the bombing started is against Ireland."

Maybe Zivandonovic is a good but totally misguided man. Maybe he is a cynic. He knows, though, the value of our collusion next Saturday. The demonisation of the entire Serb race is wrong, but the humanisation of the Milosevic regime right now is worse.

Belgrade knows it too. In that city are many of the people who protested against Milosevic during the mass demonstrations of 1991 and 1996. They are cowed now. News of our capitulation will beat them down further.

Nearly 30 years on from the Springboks at Lansdowne and sport is as self-centred as ever. Thirty years on and the same level of disapproval and protest which marked the rugby tour of 1970 seems justified once more. Nearly 30 years on and we are being asked to collude in the humanisation of a monstrous regime once again. Just say no.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]