Fifa chief Jim Boyce's anthem row plea for supporters to behave at Irish Cup final
The most senior figure in Northern Ireland football has urged fans to focus on matters on the pitch ahead of the Irish Cup final and accused outside influences of "stirring up" tensions.
Jim Boyce, who is vice-president of world football's governing body Fifa and president of Cliftonville Football Club, said he was "disappointed" the showpiece match has been marred by controversy.
Unionist politicians have hit out at the Irish Football Association following its decision not to play the national anthem ahead of this Saturday's tie between Glentoran and league champions Cliftonville.
Boyce – who has been involved in local football for more than 60 years – said it was imperative for the image of the local game that any issues off the pitch are not allowed to detract from the final, one of the most anticipated fixtures in the sporting calendar.
"I have always said sport and politics should not mix," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I hope both sets of supporters will realise how important it is for their clubs to give the right image – not only to the people who are at the game, but also to the many who will be watching on TV.
"I hope common sense will prevail and it will be a momentous day to show Belfast can stage a cup final with a massive crowd without any problems," he said.
There have been reports of planned protests ahead of the game at Windsor Park, with security a concern given the bumper crowd of over 12,000 fans expected to attend.
A delegation of unionist politicians met with the IFA to discuss their concerns. Chair of the Assembly's culture committee, the DUP's Michelle McIlveen, was joined by party colleagues and MLAs David Hilditch, William Humphrey and Edwin Poots, as well as Jim Shannon MP.
Speaking after the meeting, Ms McIlveen said: "Whilst we outlined our belief that the national anthem should be played at the Irish Cup final, it is also important to stress that Saturday should only be about football."
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Last week it emerged the IFA's challenge cup committee had decided against playing the anthem before the match at Windsor Park to create a "politically neutral environment". But some fans have described the decision as "disgraceful" and "potentially inflammatory". The IFA said it will decide on the future playing of the anthem on a case by case basis.