Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

Barcelona's Dani Alves wins plaudits for eating banana thrown by racist yob... but Portadown hero Joey Cunningham did the same over 20 years ago

Dani Alves defiantly eats the banana thrown during Barcelona's win at Villarreal
Dani Alves defiantly eats the banana thrown during Barcelona's win at Villarreal
Joey Cunningham. Football. Portadown. BELFAST TELEGRAPH ARCHIVE

It was an act of defiance that's received global acclaim.

And images of Barelona star Dani Alves eating a banana thrown at him by a racist fan have rekindled memories of a local footballer defying abuse in the same way – more than two decades earlier.

It happened in the late 1980s during Joey Cunningham's spell at Portadown in the Irish League.

Linfield were the visitors to Shamrock Park and some supporters launched a tirade of disgusting abuse at black player Cunningham from the kick-off.

At one stage a banana landed on the pitch beside him. Cunningham casually picked it up, peeled it and took a couple of bites before returning the remainder of it in the direction it had come from.

That brave act incensed the hate-filled yobs and showed them Cunningham was unfazed.

"Seeing what Alves did brought it all back," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "There was a break in the play and the bananas started to come on, so I lifted one and took a couple of bites.

"They were furious, which was perfect for me."

Cunningham said he was regularly subjected to abuse. And he revealed the extent of it dissuaded him from taking opportunities to pursue a professional career in England.

"It was terrible. It was week in, week out. I think the game in England can now be quite proud of how it is dealing with it.

"Years ago I had the chance to try the game over there – and the racism was the reason I didn't.

"It was severe. It was the whole soccer culture thing with the chants and this sort of carry on.

"I just thought I didn't need that abuse. There was no way I would have done that."

The Irish League was a cauldron most weekends. Cunningham said he set about silencing moronic elements through his exploits on the pitch.

He came to Northern Ireland as a young boy with his mother, moving to the Forkhill area from London just as the Troubles were taking hold.

He went to school in Crossmaglen and represented several sporting teams as a child. He married Siobhan and they had two children, Aaron and Niamh.

Cunningham was also an accomplished Gaelic footballer, playing regularly for Armagh.

It's believed he was the first GAA player of mixed race to play a county game at Croke Park.

While he brushed off the vile slurs he endured as a soccer player, he was angry and hurt when Aaron was targeted during an Ulster club football final while playing for Crossmaglen Rangers.

Cunningham snr said the 2012 incident made him angrier than he had ever been in his life.

"I can take it, I always could," he said. "But when my family is involved, that's when I crack.

"When Aaron got it I was furious. It's a father and son thing."

He never once heard a racist remark on the field of play during his time with Armagh. He does remember isolated taunts from some sections of the crowd, but said the abuse was nothing compared to the Irish League.

While great strides have been made in the game, he called on football's governing bodies to get tougher with those clubs whose fans continue to target players because of their race.

"The football authorities need to send out a message. How do you do that? You deduct points, make them play behind closed doors – that will sort it out," he said.

"A lot of people are wising up, but there is more work to be done."

Football teams up to show support for Brazilian star

BARCELONA star Dani Alves sparked a social media campaign against racism, with support flooding in from a host of the game's top players.

Among those to post pictures of themselves taking bites out of bananas are Luis Suarez, Neymar, Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero.

Video clips showing the moment Alves was targeted by a racist fan have gone viral. As he prepared to take a corner a banana was thrown in front of him.

He nonchalantly picked it up, peeled it, took a bite and threw it back into the crowd.

The incident happened on Sunday during Barcelona's match at Villarreal.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter said the abuse was an "outrage". Villarreal took action by banning the culprit for life.

Brazilian Alves has been targeted by racists before. He said of the incident: "You need to take these situations with a dose of humour. We have suffered this in Spain for some time. We aren't going to change things easily.

"If you don't give it importance, they don't achieve their objective."

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