War In The Balkans: Irish ban football match with Serbs

War in the Balkans

IRELAND risked being thrown out of European football championship yesterday, after the government cancelled a planned football match with Yugoslavia on account of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

The match was scheduled for this weekend and Dublin had confronted intense pressure from European football's governing body, UEFA, to go ahead. Some football observers warned Ireland could be banned from the next World Cup and said the price of the cancellation would amount to at least pounds 2m in lost receipts. The game is part of qualifying for the 2000 European Championship.

But the prospect of a public sporting contest with Serbian players appalled the entire Irish Cabinet, the Football Association of Ireland, the international team and their supporters, and numerous political pressure groups. They threatened demonstrations if the tie was played. As a result, the authorities resolved not to grant the Yugoslav side visas to enter Ireland.

Earlier, the government had suggested that it might allow the game to go ahead, but would show its displeasure by ensuring both no public officials attended the match and that it was not broadcast to Yugoslavia. The Football Association of Ireland had also pledged to ban the Yugoslav flag and anthem from being played in the stadium.

However, the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern yesterday made his support for stronger action plain when he denounced the Belgrade government in the strongest terms, lambasting "the illegal and appalling actions of the Yugoslav regime against the people of Kosovo".

There was particular unease in Ireland because the match would have been the first played by the Yugoslav side since Serbia's massive campaign of "ethnic cleansing" of ethnic Albanians got underway in Kosovo in March.

And while no one was suggesting that members of the football team were connected with the horrors of Kosovo, there were fears that the Serbian leadership would present the match as a sign that it was not as internationally isolated as Nato likes to suggest.

Criticising UEFA for its refusal to cancel the match on its own authority, Dublin said: "In view of this failure on the part of Uefa to accept its responsibilities, the unacceptable situation in Kosovo and the indictments of the International Tribunal against the authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the government is convinced that it would not be appropriate for this football match to take place in Ireland."

While some voices in Ireland were expected to criticise the apparent mixing of sports and politics, the Irish sports minister pre-empted such complaints by saying he thought attempts to separate them were "an illusion."

The British sports minister Tony Banks said he sympathised with Ireland's dilemma and said if the match had been scheduled for England, he would not want it to go ahead.

Yugoslavia was banned from international competitions for three years during the war in Bosnia under UN sanctions but they were lifted after the 1995 peace deal on Bosnia.

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