Belfast Telegraph

Row kicks off over Northern Ireland's first Sunday game

Protest is planned for Finland match at Windsor Park

By Adrian Rutherford

A row has broken out ahead of Northern Ireland's first ever home Sunday international football match.

Christians will stage a protest near Windsor Park, where Michael O'Neill's side play Finland in the historic fixture this weekend.

The Euro 2016 qualifier is the first game which Northern Ireland have played on the Sabbath.

The break with years of tradition has angered some, who believe Sunday should be kept as a day of rest. A religious service will take place close to the stadium ahead of kick-off.

Rev David McLaughlin from Carryduff Free Presbyterian Church said the match went against the Bible's teachings.

"We believe it is a violation of the sanctity of the Lord's Day," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Northern Ireland have played on a Sunday before, notably at the 1982 World Cup when Johnny Jameson, a born-again Christian, refused to play against France.

They also played the opening game of the current qualifying campaign in Hungary on a Sunday.

However, this is the first time that a home international has been staged on the Sabbath.

The decision to schedule the match on a Sunday was not made by the Irish Football Association.

Instead it is European football's governing body, Uefa, which selected the date. The return fixture in Helsinki in October will also be on a Sunday.

Rev McLaughlin said there was strong opposition among members of his church.

"We believe in the principle of one day in seven as a day of worship and a day for rest - a day when we behave differently," he added. "We feel it is very important to uphold that principle.

"Therefore, for the Northern Ireland football team to find themselves in a position where they are playing for the very first time on the Lord's Day, we feel it is right that we go and have a religious service and show the depth of feeling about this issue."

Rev McLaughlin said the service outside Tyndale Memorial Free Presbyterian Church - 300 yards from Windsor Park - would consist of prayers, a Bible reading and a religious address.

It will take place at 3.45pm - 75 minutes before kick-off.

The Evangelical Protestant Society was "deeply saddened" the game was going ahead. "It marks another watershed moment in modern Ulster's increasing rejection of the Lord's Day," the society said.

"Our province once held resolutely to Sunday observance, but those days are long gone."

Irish FA president Jim Shaw said he understood the feelings.

However, he said the timing of the game was a matter for Uefa.

"Uefa are maximising the number of games they can show on TV and they are in control of when fixtures are played," he said. "We were told we could dispute it but couldn't change it."

Northern Ireland boss O'Neill said his priority was securing three points.

"We appreciate and understand people's religious beliefs - but the game must be played on Sunday, as that date was decreed when the fixture was made by Uefa," he said.

"We hope for a victory on the night, and for the usual wonderful support from all Northern Ireland fans."

Former Glentoran striker Michael Halliday, who is a Christian, took part in the first ever match played on a Sunday in Northern Ireland.

He appeared in the Glens' 1-0 win over Bangor at the Oval in September 2008.

"I would much rather not have played on a Sunday, but on that particular day it didn't affect me in terms of going to church or doing the things I normally would have done on a Sunday," he said. "While Sunday is an important day for being a Christian, there is the rest of the week as well. You're not just a Christian on a Sunday.

"Each and every person needs to make their own mind up on it.

Q&A: Curtain-raiser to bring more of the same

Q. Why is this weekend’s match so significant?

A. Two reasons, actually. First, it is Northern Ireland’s 600th international. More importantly, it is the first home international fixture to be played on a Sunday. And in Northern Ireland, where religion is important to many people, that is a big deal.

Q. Other sports are played on a Sunday — why the fuss?

A. For many years we had a well-earned reputation of ‘Never on a Sunday’. It was only in 2008 that a football match was played on a Sunday here. Around 2,500 people turned up to see Glentoran play Bangor in east Belfast.

Q. So why did they not just stick to Saturday?

A. The Irish Football Association was told to stage the game on a Sunday by European football’s governing body, Uefa. Uefa has revamped its qualification campaign for Euro 2016, stretching matches over six days to maximise television revenue.

Q. So this is unlikely to be a one-off?

A. No. Irish FA president Jim Shaw said Uefa had signalled that the current qualification format will stay for future European Championships. As long as the process stays, Northern Ireland will play at least one home game on a Sunday.

Q. Is this the first time Northern Ireland have played on a Sunday?

A. No, but it is in Belfast. David Healy broke the goalscoring record in Trinidad & Tobago in 2004 on a Sunday.

Q. What has the reaction been?

A. A protest is planned this weekend and a number of Christian sportspeople have spoken out against the game taking place on the Sabbath. Others see it as a sign of progress, pointing to the fact that every major league in Europe plays games on a Sunday.

Q. You could almost forget there is a football match taking place.

A. Yes, and it’s a crucial one for Northern Ireland. They have won three of their first four qualifiers and sit second in their qualifying group, raising hopes they could make the final stages of a major tournament for the first time since 1986.

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