Pilots on approach to the Belfast airport sometimes tell passengers to reset their watches to the local time: 1690. Your pilot hadn't said this, but you had heard the story nevertheless, and it had you wondering about the cabbie who'll take you into town, this man who wants to know why you've come to Northern Ireland. Soccer game, you tell him. "Not a seat to be had," he says.
The Republic of Ireland is playing the North, and a loss will keep the Republic from qualifying for the World Cup finals in the U.S. next summer. The North is out of it no matter what. The two sides are playing in Ulster, which is still mourning its dead from the bloodiest month in decades, 27 lives, Catholic and Protestant, lost in October, most of them here in Belfast. People call the murderous conflict "the troubles," in a kind of resigned understatement. "They sadden me greatly," your driver says. "These people causing the troubles, they're not real Irish. They don't have the Gaelic soul. Me, I have no enemies. People may not like me, but I have no enemies."
You begin to form the question in your head: Not that it matters, but are you...? The answer comes before you can ask.
"I grew up on the Shankill Road, where all was red, white and blue—orange to the core," he says, indicating with codes of color and place that he's Protestant. "But if the Republic should go to the Cup finals, I for one won't have a tear in the eye. They're Irish, and I'd wish them well."
Archie Cunningham is your driver's name, and with sport and politics you have broached subjects entangled with much of his life. Luckily, it's a long ride to the hotel, long enough to accommodate all the stories tumbling now into the back seat: How Cunningham had been a crack cyclist once, good enough to win the Tour of Ireland; how he had carried the tri-colored flag of the Republic at the 1972 Olympics for a united Irish team, only to receive threats from hard-liners in the Shankill; how fierce Protestant Unionists had phoned him at home a few years later, on the eve of a St. Patrick's Day race in the South, warning him off competing in it. He went anyway and won the thing. "If I hadn't gone, if I'd allowed myself to be dictated to, I'd have been bothered with calls every night," he says.
By now you are passing the city center, with the ring of hills girdling the sectarian slums of West Belfast to your right. To the left is the shipyard that built the Titanic. Soon Archie is carrying your bags to the front desk. "You and I are going to have a couple of pints of the black stuff before you fly off," he says.
The Irish need only minutes to make friends of strangers. Why do they require centuries to do the same of each other? You will pose this question again and again during your three-day visit to Belfast. You meet John Sugden, an education professor at the University of Ulster who cofounded Belfast United, a mixed-faith youth soccer team that tours the U.S. each summer. He explains that in international rugby and boxing there are all-Ireland teams, encompassing the Catholic South and the largely Protestant North, which is still part of the United Kingdom. Even to that most nationalistic of athletic convocations, the Olympics, Ireland sends simple Irishmen and Irishwomen, people from the North and South, people like Archie Cunningham. Why is soccer different? "It's a working-class game, and most of the troubles are in working-class areas," Sugden says. "So talk of a united team really gets the hackles raised."
Twenty years ago Northern Ireland fielded a team with two of the greatest players in the world, George Best and Pat Jennings. Best was a Protestant striker, Jennings a Catholic goalkeeper, and they roomed together. When the North reached the Cup finals in 1982, virtually all of Ulster, including most of the 40% Catholic minority, rallied to the team. But during the late 1980s, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement pledging greater cooperation between Great Britain and the Republic, Protestant Ulster felt increasingly isolated and began to cling more desperately to symbols of its separateness from the South. About the same time, an Englishman named Jack Charlton took over the Republic's theretofore mediocre team and made a great success of it, going all the way to the final eight of the Cup in 1990. After years of immersion in Gaelic games—parochial pastimes like hurling and Gaelic football—Irish Catholics could now use soccer as well to proclaim their Irishness to the world. Over this span the number of Catholics on the Northern Ireland team dwindled, and its successes on the field became more modest. And the mood at Windsor Park, where Northern Ireland plays, became increasingly sectarian.
Windsor Park is set amid the redbrick row houses of the Village, a Unionist stronghold in South Belfast. The stadium is home to Linfield, a soccer club that suited up its first Catholic player only last year, largely because of pressure from commercial sponsors. In 1991 a terrorist grenade exploded at one end of the stadium among supporters of Cliftonville, a Catholic team. While the Irish Republican Army and its Unionist counterparts tend to spare sport, the inflammations that the terrorists from both sides cause are undressed sores, and soccer games with sectarian implications routinely reinfect them. Even as they cheer a Northern Ireland team composed of players from both faiths, Protestant fans sing such songs as The Sash My Father Wore, with its lyrics about being "up to our knees in Fenian [Catholic] blood."
Sugden explains: "It was a kind of push-me, pull-you situation. Catholics weren't made to feel welcome in Windsor Park, and Big Jack was working this miracle down in Dublin. The last few years I've asked my students, 'Who supports Northern Ireland and who supports the Republic?' And you can almost run a line between them—the Protestants support the North and the Catholics support the Republic. I've done this on too many occasions for it to be down to chance."
Last March in Dublin, where the Republic beat Northern Ireland 3-0, fans taunted the North by chanting, "There's only one team in Ireland!" Yet only five of the Republic's 22 players were actually born on the Old Sod, and three of the others qualified in the most tenuous fashion the rules allow, by having an Irish grandparent. Before this Nov. 17th game, that gave rise to a charge from Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham, the son of a Belfast shipyard worker, that Charlton's players were "mercenaries." Even if he's a healer at heart—Bingham was the man who, in the '60s, assigned Best and Jennings to the same room—a Belfaster will have a knack for tit-for-tat. For tonight's match, Bingham's last as national coach, he has pledged revenge.
A half mile from the stadium a policeman stops you, demanding to see your ticket. A quarter mile from the grounds you see graffiti celebrating the UFF, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Protestant paramilitary group that strafed a pub in the predominantly Catholic village of Greysteel on Halloween night, the gunman yelling "Trick or treat!" before killing seven people. Once in the stadium, you notice the flags. From the official flagpoles flap the flags of Northern Ireland; of soccer's international governing body, FIFA; and of Turkey, for the referee, a doctor from Istanbul. Fans have hung the Union Jack everywhere, its red, white and blue at odds with the green and white uniforms of the two teams on the field. The tricolor of the Republic is nowhere to be seen.
This is by agreement between the northern Irish Football Association and the southern Football Association of Ireland (FAI), two organizations attuned to the finest distinctions of symbol and semantics. In Dublin, Northern Ireland had played without any of the usual trappings of nationhood. Here, before kickoff, a marching band plays God Save the Queen, and nothing else.
The man from Denmark Radio is sitting behind you, updating listeners in his homeland on the game. Denmark is playing Spain in Seville, and a broadcast of that game is being piped into his headset. In the complex permutations of World Cup qualifying, the Republic must either win tonight to qualify outright, or tie and hope that either Spain or Denmark loses so that Ireland would qualify on total goals scored. Both games start at the same time to forestall any chicanery.
Only 400 of the 10,500 tickets had been made available to the Republic, and the FAI, which had tried in vain to get the game's venue changed because of the recent violence, would not sell them. Indeed, many Catholics in the North refused to get tickets for family and friends because they feared what might happen to loved ones at the game. Those fans of the Republic who have shown up are mixed into the crowd at perilous random. You think you can tell who they are—knots of nervous dispassion here and there, people who look ready to burst from stifling cheers.
It is a rope-a-dope game of soccer, with opportunities bungled one after the other. But it is played with fury. You recall the fears of the Danish and the Spanish, that the Irish team with no chance to qualify would lay down for the Irish team whose hopes rode on this one game. From the stands you can see how unfounded those fears are. There are sectarian songs. There are monkey sounds directed at a Republic defender, Terry Phelan, who's part black. There are shouts of "Ya Fenian bastard!" at the doctor from Istanbul.
Twenty minutes into the second half the man from Denmark Radio tells you that Spain has scored to go up 1-0. This is a welcome development for the Republic. But soon the news from Seville becomes momentarily moot. A 34-year-old striker named Jimmy Quinn whacks a 20-yarder past the Republic's goalkeeper with his right foot. From the roar you think for an instant that Windsor Park is going to lift itself up and leave forever this misbegotten place, that the Republic won't be going to the U.S. after all.
But minutes later a player for the Republic finds the ball caroming toward him after a free kick. He traps it with his chest, lets it strike the ground just outside the penalty area, then volleys it into the Northern Ireland net with his left foot. You will learn later that this man suffered from a horrible toothache the day before but hadn't dared visit the dentist for fear he would be told he couldn't play. The man from Denmark Radio is telling thousands of Danes the name of the player—"Al-an Mc-Lough-lin"—who has probably just deprived Denmark of a trip to America.
Time runs out, and the Windsor Park game ends 1-1. On the field Charlton lets loose his anger over Bingham's pregame woofing, uttering an oath at Bingham he'll later apologize for. In the stands perhaps 20 people cluster around the man from Denmark Radio. Minutes pass before he gives the signal that Spain has held on, and word works its way down to the field that the Republic's quest to qualify, after 575 days and 42 games, has ended in success. The joy will come later, when thousands of fans meet the team at the Dublin airport; for now there is only relief.
The several thousand cops, soldiers and security men have also prevailed. There are no deaths, no shots, no explosions, and only a few arrests, all for drunkenness. The night's bloodshed is across the Irish Sea, where at the end of the Cup qualifier between Wales and Romania in Cardiff, two fans let loose a distress flare that strikes a 67-year-old man in the neck and kills him.
But this is no night for brotherhood, either. From outside the stadium you hear the singing of a few of the Republic's fans who are still inside—cordoned by security guards—and are finally able to unbottle their emotions as they wait to be escorted from the grounds. A man walking next to you is enraged. "Listen to the scum in there!" he snarls. "Singing! Someone should machine gun 'em! Trick or treat, bastards!"
The next morning Archie tries to make sense of what you saw. "Last night, for the people there, it was war without guns," he says. "But the result, it was an Irish dream. Nobody lost, and the Republic went through. For a pure Irishman, it couldn't have worked out any better."
Before imbibing the agreed-upon Guinness, the two of you drive around Belfast. A cab driver is usually the most clichèd window through which to view a strange place, but Archie is no hackneyed hack, and his profession is one of this city's most extraordinary. Cabbies are shot all the time in Belfast. By law, taxis are supposed to carry roof signs indicating the company they belong to. But some companies are so sectarian that a roof sign might as well be a bull's-eye, and Archie keeps his in the trunk. "A cop may stop me over it," he says. "But I just tell him I'm not ready to leave the wee ones for a few years yet, and he understands."
You pass the concrete-and-barbed-wire "peace lines" that keep neighbors from neighbors. You pass through the Falls, with its shops selling rosaries and other Catholic sundries, and murals bearing taut oaths of defiance and portraits of IRA martyrs such as Bobby Sands. You pass through the Shankill, where the walls scream NO SURRENDER and a huge gap in one block looks like someone has extracted a tooth. This is where Frizzell's Fish Shop stood, not 100 paces from where Archie grew up, until an IRA bomb leveled it on Oct. 23, killing 10. You pass the regrettably busy Royal Victoria Hospital. "Best experts in the world on gunshot wounds," Archie says, voice flat, as if he were pointing out some museum or botanical garden. "They've pioneered all methods of replacing kneecaps and joints with titanium and steel."
You do not pass City Hall. Downtown traffic is jammed. The biggest peace demonstration in 25 years has drawn 30,000 people who, like Archie, may not like each other but have no enemies. Belfast has a toothache, you decide, and its people desperately want to see a dentist.
Amity reigned before and during the game, but away from Windsor Park, signs of Ulster's strife were all too evident.
John Aldridge and his Republic mates were down, but a late goal won them a trip to the U.S.
In East Belfast, soccer affords a respite from "the troubles," to kids as well as their elders.
Among his students, Sugden says, support for the two teams runs along religious lines.