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2 April 2012 Edition

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Northern soccer’s elephant in the room

When I heard that there was trouble at the recent Derry v Linfield game I was not overly surprised but dismayed that, despite all that is going on in wider society, there is still a tendency for thuggery and sectarianism within soccer.

BEFORE I START, I want to get something clear: I am biased against Linfield.

I grew up following Cliftonville FC in North Belfast and the arch rivals/enemy was Linfield. They also happened to be the most successful team in the league played in the North, although I believe that had a lot to do with the fact that they were also the richest team in the league.

Cliftonville playing Linfield was like a miniature Celtic v Rangers game as one set of supporters displayed their political allegiance/nationality by waving Union Jacks and the other by waving Tricolours.

Add in the fact that there was a war waging at the time and the games became a volatile mixture of political allegiance, chants about the latest incident in the war and sectarianism. Old-fashioned sporting rivalry took a back seat.

I still don’t like Linfield for all those reasons. Their culture and ethos is unionist/British and because of that they certainly have a streak of sectarianism about them.

When I heard that there was trouble at the recent Derry v Linfield game I was not overly surprised but dismayed that, despite all that is going on in wider society, there is still a tendency for thuggery and sectarianism within soccer.

There is something wrong with Northern soccer. It is and has always been sick. When looking for the remedy the tendency is to ignore the elephant in the room that is partition.

Whether it’s the teams within the Northern leagues or the Six-County team itself, political allegiance and sectarianism is never far from the surface. The football authorities in the North have been part of the problem.

One national allegiance is displayed for the North’s games even though you can see nationalist players are uncomfortable with this. The English national anthem is played and (amazingly) the loyalist version of the Red Hand of Ulster is flown as the state’s emblem.

While there may be noises made about making Windsor Park more attractive to nationalists, it’s a bit like window dressing for a broken window.

Partition within soccer is like a pile of cows’ dung and sectarianism is the flies feeding off it. Like many sports - rugby, GAA, boxing and hockey, for instance - un-partition soccer and we can have a sport that can function and flourish.

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