When Finland take to the field in their fifth Euro 2016 qualifier in Belfast on March 29th 2015, the players will be making history, albeit not a record that will particularly remembered by the majority of the players or visiting supporters.
The match against Northern Ireland will be the first time that the hosts will be playing a full home international on a Sunday, and even then this is not a voluntary move.
UEFA’s scheduling of fixtures in order to maximise television viewing figures (and advertising revenue) has seen the associations lose the power to arrange their own fixtures.
It’s a ruling that has also affected Finland negatively, it’s hard to imagine that the Finnish FA would wish to host a match against the Faroe Islands on a Monday night at 9.45pm local time but that it what is happening in September.
As the Northern Irish team are doing better than expected in qualifying (nine points from four games), the match sold out quickly, albeit thanks to a reduced capacity due to renovation work at Windsor Park. Away tickets numbering 700 were snapped up quickly as well, some fans taking in flight changes in Copenhagen and London to get there.
The match in Belfast will certainly attract attention to a match which would otherwise not previously register too highly in the Province. The travelling Finland fans will be welcomed warmly and will enjoy a city which has seen an awful lot of money spent on it in recent years
But some of the few league matches which have been played on Sundays have been met with protests and player withdrawals. In the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Johnny Jameson refused to play a group game against France on a Sunday due to his religious beliefs, while in 2007 Northern Ireland’s refusal to play on a Sunday meant that a match with Denmark, which would have been rained off, went ahead anyway on a waterlogged pitch.
That football in 21st century Europe is still affected by religion is cause for concern. Former captain Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic until last summer, retired from international football because of abuse he received from his own supporters due to the fact that he is a Roman Catholic.
It is however important to stress that things have improved since then, with UEFA praising the various supporter groups for making Windsor Park more welcoming. The IFA now conducts community audits, advising clubs on how to widen their appeal and reach out to locals. They identify football as an instrument of change in the long-running problems based on religion.
Sectarianism is rife in Northern Irish sport, football being predominantly a Unionist pastime. Clubs with a lengthy past tend to come from the industrialised areas of the country, which were historically largely Protestant, whilst the rural areas – largely Nationalist – played and still play Gaelic sports, and therefore have very few teams in the IFA Premiership.
Currently only one team comes from the south west – Dungannon Swifts – whilst in Antrim there are currently seven Premier League teams, five of which are from Belfast, a modest city roughly the size of Sunderland. Just by taking a look at the travel ports of a weekend will show groups travelling to England and Scotland in support of “their” sides.
Former forward Gerry Armstrong, a teammate of Johnny Jameson and so prominent in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, has embraced the softened stance on Sunday football. He told reporters shortly after the draw that Northern Ireland are “well behind the times on this”.
IFA president Jim Shaw was more neutral:
You can’t choose the dates. In the old system, all teams came together and chose what dates they would play.
The Irish FA had banned Sunday football in the Province until 2008, when a vote lifted the ban on the grounds that it was discriminatory, while the first league match played on a Sunday between Glentoran and Bangor saw fifty people protesting outside, singing hymns.
The Free Presbyterian Church group, at one point led by the late Reverend Ian Paisley, held up signs quoting Exodus “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”. A protest outside the stadium for the Finland international is also being organised by Rev David McIlveen, a retired church minister.
He warned that having the match on a Sunday “is actually discriminating against people who are involved in football but who through religious convictions will not take part on a Sunday, and we commend them for that”.
Former international Stuart Elliott said:
We have always had a strong tradition in Northern Ireland as a great evangelical country so I would not be a supporter of playing football on a Sunday here, or having the fixtures on a Sunday.
The religious and political divides run deeper than football, however as an outsider looking in, it is most identifiable with plenty of Rangers merchandise and shops in the city centre. Even those in positions of political power trade football as a currency, such as when Martin McGuinness revealed he would cheer on the Northern Ireland football team.
With many nationalists hostile to the international team, viewing its home stadium in south Belfast as a cold house for Catholics, the remarks from the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister potentially represent another landmark in improving cross-community relations.
A quote from a gay Cliftonville fan, a club who have been flying the Rainbow flag at home games in support of LGBT fans campaigning for gay marriage, shows the will of some. He said of the flag that:
People are more forward thinking, more 21st century, more current. It is what football needs across these islands because the attitude here is still backward in regards to sexuality, race or gender.
When the full-time whistle blows on last Sunday of March 2015, the result will be what matters. Both sets of fans will descend on the pubs of the city, some in green, some in blue. Whether they’ll wake up on Monday morning being able to remember what was so symbolic about the match, well that’s a different story…