In Good Conscience

Moments of triumph and joy will always rise above terror attacks

Easter Sunday in India was lit up by the simple pleasure of sport, illustrated by Afghanistan's cricketers literally dancing for joy on the turf after beating the West Indies by six runs for their first World Twenty20 win.

It was made all the more wonderful by Chris Gayle, the big West Indian batsman bouncing hip to hip with Mohammad Shahzad, the portly Afghan wicket-keeper, in front of the TV cameras.

Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan captured the mood in this tweet: "Once again Afghanistan play with Spirit, Heart, Skill and Passion... Make the most of it we may never see them again... !!!!!!!!!! #ICCWT20."

Surely we will.

The world, not just cricket, needs this kind of simple joy from those who play sport and find their own moments of surprising triumph.

Alas, even as those scenes were playing out at Nagpur, at least 29 children were among dozens killed in the Easter Sunday bombing of a Lahore park, an act for which a splinter group of the Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility.

We all share this planet and sport is, to my simple mind, a wonderful way of learning that there is no barrier, no difference between us in terms of race, religion, creed or colour that games like cricket and football do not surmount.

At the same time, reports were being digested of a slaughter in Iraq that was atrocious even by ISIS' standards.

It happened on March 25, Good Friday, when a suicide bomber struck at a trophy ceremony following a football tournament. ISIS boasted that the blast killed more than 60 and wounded more than 100.

The official toll in Iskandariyah, the mixed Sunni-Shiite town south of Baghdad, was 32 dead and 84 wounded, 12 of them in a critical condition, while 17 of the dead were boys aged between 10 and 16.

Their crime was to play football, and to be there that day. The bomber killed the local mayor, one of his bodyguards, and members of the security forces, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"We are shocked and terribly saddened," said Gianni Infantino, the new president of football's international body, Fifa.

"Around the world, football unites people," his statement continued. "It is a very sad day when people going to a football match together become victims of such violence."

That, it seems, is what makes sport a target for this new breed of terrorists.

The unity that Infantino spoke about, the joy in coming out into the world and taking part as the Afghan cricketers have, now seems to have made sport a target for such inhumanity.

Just days before the Iskandariyah bombing, the same news agency, AFP, reported a visit to a refugee camp in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.

London club Arsenal, in conjunction with their global charity partner Save the Children, is committed to building pitches at that camp and others for thousands of displaced children.

The story quoted Alex Scott, the Arsenal women's team captain, who had flown out to hold coaching sessions with the kids.

"I played in a metal football cage in the East End of London," Scott told the BBC. "Football was more than a game, it gave me so much.

"That's when I dreamed of playing for England and playing for Arsenal. That football cage was my Wembley."

The East End of London can be rough, but Iraq or Afghanistan it isn't.

However, Scott, a gutsy defender, has 123 caps for England and, apart from Arsenal where she began to play at the age of eight, she played more than 50 games in American professional football for the Boston Breakers.

She has played in the Women's World Cup and at the London Olympics, has a football academy backed by Puma, a newspaper column, and a recent celebrity appearance on Bear Grylls' TV reality show, Mission Survive.

The trip to the Kurdistan camp comes, no doubt, into the category of "giving something back" to the sport that was the making of her.

A fellow called Lionel Messi does that, too, from time to time. About a month ago, Messi heard the story of a young fan (again in Afghanistan) and sent the boy one of his own Argentina shirts.

This week, in a similar gesture, Messi donated a pair of his boots during an Egyptian television show. That second gift backfired somewhat when viewers accused him and the broadcaster of insulting Egyptian culture - because shoes are often seen as a mark of disrespect in that part of the world.

We all share this planet and sport is, to my simple mind, a wonderful way of learning that there is no barrier, no difference between us in terms of race, religion, creed or colour that games like cricket and football do not surmount.

And that is where I, and many like me, can seem frighteningly misguided.

There was a time, during the Protestant and Catholic violence in Northern Ireland, when I witnessed first hand how people on both sides of the conflict laid down arms and prejudices to support their own sons playing for a team that had one abiding rule. It was that no one asked, and no one told, which side of the argument their families were steeped in. So I took from that experience a belief that sport conquers all.

The one time that shattered that illusion was the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich where members of the Palestinian terror group Black September took hostage, and eventually massacred, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

With that one dreadful exception in Germany, terrorists seemed to avoid sport, possibly because they wanted to gain support for their respective causes and not to destroy their support base.

We are in a new era now of terrorism, one that seems hell-bent on hatred and intolerance. Sport, and people having a good time wherever and whatever they like doing, are soft targets.

Perhaps it was naive, and certainly it now is wrong, to believe that promoting goodwill through playing games had a kind of immunity from the evil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Moments of triumph and joy will always rise above terror attacks'. Print Edition | Subscribe