Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin believes victory for Northern Ireland in next month's Euro 2020 play-off final against Slovakia would provide people here with a much-needed lift in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Sinn Fein politician has also revealed her hope that construction work on the new Casement Park would start in 2021 and outlined her pride in how sport has played an inspirational role throughout Covid-19.
Ms Ni Chuilin was speaking after her Department for Communities delivered a huge financial boost to sport in Northern Ireland with £15m being made available by the NI Executive to help the sports sector deal with the impact of the pandemic.
If the package, to be dished out by Sport NI, will aid struggling clubs and governing bodies off the field, Ms Ni Chuilin feels it is imperative that our sports stars and teams continue to make the public happy on it. Ahead of Northern Ireland's November 12 Euro showdown versus Slovakia at Windsor Park, the Minister will talk to IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson with spectator numbers on the agenda.
"I will be talking to Patrick and the IFA soon. The ground can hold 18,000 and I know about them wanting fans socially distanced and we will get into a discussion around that. I think the game against Slovakia will lift people and we all need it, especially if they win," said Ms Ni Chuilin. "In this pandemic you have to give people hope and positivity and there is nothing like a great match or great event.
"Sport is in the heart of our communities and it is so important that sport continues. It is great escapism and I am in awe at the ability and camaraderie of our sports stars and I see what sport has done for people in these difficult times. I am really proud to be part of that as a Minister."
Ms Ni Chuilin continued: “I have witnessed how sport has reached out to help those in need.
“For example members of Ardoyne GAA club over the last few nights have been up to 2am with the local food bank making food parcels for kids who have no money and there’s Crusaders FC going out to deliver food parcels in north Belfast.
“That stuff goes under the radar but it shows what sport can do. They are superstars in my opinion.”
In NI Executive talks, Ms Ni Chuilin fought hard to land sport funding worth £15m. She said: “I know how much sport and sporting clubs are struggling financially so this is vital.
“The money goes to Sport NI and everybody applies to Sport NI for funding.
“We are not asking sporting bodies to make applications on behalf of clubs. People need to be able to apply in their own right.
“Whoever gets money will be on the website because there is going to be complete transparency about this.
“I put up a really good argument for sport.
“I asked for more but with the situation we are in and the needs of health and education and even different needs in my own department, I know I was lucky getting the £15m and to be fair I received the support of every Executive colleague.”
In her first spell as Sports Minister, Ms Ni Chuilin was a key figure when the Windsor Park and Kingspan stadiums were modernised with the help of public money and standing in for colleague Deirdre Hargey, she is determined to see Casement Park finally built to complete the sporting triangle, pointing out that she would like to see work start on the Belfast venue next year.
“At present I am working with the Ulster Council of the GAA and the Department for Finance to get the final business case done,” said Ms Ni Chuilin.
“It is my primary responsibility to get the final business case through Finance and then we can present it to Executive colleagues.
“I expect the business case to be completed early in the New Year and the construction to start soon after.”
Originally, the Casement Park project had a budget of £77m with £15m coming from the GAA.
Cost projections for the stadium are now at £110m with Ms Ni Chuilin recently suggesting the GAA would have to increase their contribution.
“I have to be honest and realistic about that,” said the Minister.
“I want Casement Park built. It’s the last piece of the jigsaw for the sporting family and it will bring so many benefits but the money the GAA put on the table in 2010, we are now 10 years on and it will require additional money.
“There are great people at the Ulster Council and within my own Department working hard on this and we all know we need Casement built.”