Westmeath minor footballers make history despite final defeat to Kildare
Leinster finalists field three black players for the first time in a provincial final
Isreal Ilunga of Westmeath in action against Kildare in the Leinster final yesterday. Photograph: Inpho
Westmeath’s first appearance in a Leinster minor final in 13 years is unlikely to live long in the memory of the county’s supporters.
The team were soundly beaten by a rampant Kildare side though they fought bravely to reduce a 14-point deficit to eight at the final whistle, eventually losing by 2-15 to 2-7.
The game, though, has historic significance for the GAA beyond the result. Westmeath became the first intercounty team to field three black players in a major provincial final.
Corner-back Boidu Sayeh is from the Rosemount club near Moate. He has lived in Ireland since he was a young child. Full-back Israel Ilunga is from Inny Shamrocks on the Cavan-Longford border and midfielder Sam Omokuro plays with Athlone GAA. All started for Westmeath.
Wisely, perhaps, the GAA did not make an attempt to gaelicise their names in the match programme, as is the custom.
It may have been a first, but is certain not to be the last as the great wave of immigration of Ireland in the early part of the last decade filters through to the GAA under-age scene.
‘Wonderful to see’
“It is the society we live in now. It is superb, it is wonderful to see,” said Westmeath manager and former Dublin footballer Tom Carr.
“They are there on merit as everybody has seen them play throughout the year. Like all things, after a while, you don’t see whether they are black or white or green. You just want to see if they can play left-half back or right-half forward. That’s really the only thing that counts.”
Ilunga, whose family are originally from Congo, nearly didn’t make the final. He was sent off in the semi-final against Meath for an off-the-ball incident, but that ban was overturned by the GAA Leinster council on appeal because it was alleged that he was provoked by racist taunting from a rival player.
He scored a point in the second half after being moved into midfield.
The GAA’s national children’s officer, Gearóid Ó Maoilmhichíl, will investigate the incident following a written complaint from Westmeath County Board.
Earlier this year a motion at the GAA congress enshrining a stance on anti-sectarian and anti-racist behaviour got 90 per cent support from delegates. A racist incident can lead to an eight-week suspension or in extreme cases expulsion from the GAA.
“Racism is always going to be an issue in the GAA,” said Carr, who added that he believed the association had a “no-nonsense” approach to the problem.