Basketball Ireland CEO on playing Israel game: ‘I’m not prepared to destroy my sport for a gesture that will have no impact’

John Feehan and coach James Weldon are continuing to prepare for Wednesday night’s game against Israel, adamant that they had no choice in the matter

The stage is set. Ireland will play Israel in Riga, Latvia, on Thursday in a EuroBasket qualifier and no amount of noise or pressure from the outside is going to change that fact. In the end, Basketball Ireland made their choice. They made it in the knowledge that plenty will disagree with it – and they accept and respect anyone who does. But according to chief executive John Feehan, the choice that lay in front of them was no choice at all.

“What is happening in Gaza is dreadful,” he says. “We all acknowledge that. The issue is, ‘Is this going to make a difference to the Israeli government?’ Quite frankly, we don’t believe it will make a blind bit of difference. But what it will do is destroy our women’s international game for the next 10 years ...

“I reiterate – and I am quite serious about this – we have huge sympathy for the people with what’s happening in Gaza. All the players, whether they’re in Latvia or not, feel the same way. But the reality is, is it going to make a blind bit of difference if we make a grand gesture? And the simple answer to that is that in our view, no it will not. And I’m not prepared to destroy my sport for a gesture that will have no impact.”

Their position has long been clear. They wrote to Fiba, the sport’s governing body, asking for the tie to be postponed on safety grounds. Fiba rejected the request. According to the rules of the competition, Ireland risk fines of up to €180,000 for refusing to play and a five-year ban from international competition. For Feehan, a putative ban is much worse than the fine.


“Money is very important, it would be very detrimental to us,” he says. “We’re not a rich organisation. But the really, really big issue for us would be effectively getting rid of a generation of players. We’d be out of competition for the next five years effectively and that’s just not acceptable.

“The other element of that is, not only would we be out of competition for the next five years, it would probably take us another five years to even get back to where we are now. So in real terms we would lose a generation of players. We’d lose role models for our kids as they go through the process of learning to play basketball. There’d be nowhere to go. It would be like a body with no head.”

The other side of the story, of course, is that Israel is using the game as propaganda. Members of the Israeli Defence Force have visited with Ireland’s opponents in the build-up to the game and photos of soldiers standing on the hardcourt in fatigues with assault weapons strapped to them have been circulated widely. This is not the biggest fixture in world sport, but it’s not a small thing either.

And there, in the middle of it, Ireland coach James Weldon is preparing his team as best he can. He is short of a number of regulars – some of them through injury, another five who have simply decided not to play. The game is behind closed doors for safety reasons. It will be a surreal experience, whatever happens.

“We’re trying to keep it normal and prepare as we would normally do for any international game. Of course that’s all going on in the background, we understand that. But I’m just trying to focus in and get ready for a difficult game,” said Weldon.

“I would rather not go into the individual reasons. Some players are injured, some players are studying, some players have made it a personal choice. What has made me hugely proud of the group is, even though they’re very young players, they have communicated with each other very well. There’s a huge respect for the players who are here from the players that are not here and vice versa.”

In normal circumstances, there would have been a certain amount of interaction between the two camps before a game like this. Fiba generally tends to billet opposing teams in the same hotel, if only for the sake of handiness. That hasn’t happened this time around. At an official level, Feehan describes the dealings between the two federations as “businesslike”.

Meanwhile, Israeli coach Sharon Drucker had this to say when the IDF soldiers came to visit their training session: “There is no point in getting the players hot and fired up because they will come with motivation and a desire to win anyway. I have a lot to say about it but I prefer not to speak and keep the national team focused on basketball. But sport should be an integral part of what it symbolises and Ireland did not accept that.”

Which neatly sums up Ireland’s predicament here – damned at home for playing, damned in Israel for considering not playing. All they can do now is get it over with and hope to move on.

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Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times