Sport is fair game for referee runner Israel
2019-03-01 00:00:00 -

By Ken McCue


As a graduate of the successful Insaka-Glentoran Academy, Israel Ibeanu had a great desire to give back what he got out of sport.


During his spell with a team full of players from migrant backgrounds, he found that he was faster off the mark than the rest.


So, after swapping his soccer boots for spikes, he burned up the track as a sprinter at an Africa Week athletics meet for Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), where his performance was praised by the great Olympic champion Kipchoge Keino.


Israel’s experience in the home of Clonliffe Harriers, Santry Stadium, motivated him to join that club where he has performed with distinction ever since.


But he has also reconnected with the beautiful game, and this year marks his seventh season as a referee.


“I got into refereeing with the advice of a Youthreach officer who was also a referee, after I told him I have given up football which was hurting me.


“I hated football and everything to do with it at that time, but as soon as I started refereeing I found a new love for the beautiful game.”


What’s fuelling Israel’s enthusiasm as a referee is the fact that he is breaking down barriers, he says.


“I am the youngest African and the fastest referee in the country and probably in the world. I am motivated to be the best referee I can be and be a part of the biggest games played on the world stage once I get my Fifa badge.”


The 24-year-old from Blanchardstown is determined to follow in the boot steps of former English Premier League referee Uriah Renee in paving the way for men and women from the African diaspora to take up the whistle.


Before that can happen, though, Israel has to serve his time in the local leagues. “When I come to games in my civilian clothes and introduce myself to the team managers, they think that I am a cheeky player from the opposing team,” he says.


“Weirdly, many of the players are excited when they see me — ‘Oh my God, a black referee’— especially the African players. They feel that today they will be protected by me; even though I am neutral they feel that they can express themselves even more during the game.”


With the growth of multicultural teams, Israel says he receives great respect towards him and his decisions. “The kids feel they can relate to me as I am of their generation and I have been in their position as well. So far coaches and players have shown me great respect.”


Planning a duel career path, Israel is studying applied social studies in social care in the new Technological University Dublin at its Blanchardstown campus. This discipline helps him with refereeing especially with children: as he studies the reasons why children behave the way they do, it helps him to make better decisions and process situations much more swiftly.


“A kid might be having a bad game maybe because of the pressure he or she is receiving from the touchline or at home, and I can easily pick that up and pull the kid aside to calm him down instead of just showing a card straight away and making things worse,” he explains.


“This also helps me with my confidence which I think is very high because I can be myself, tell jokes during the match and make football fun for the kids.”


As a champion runner, Israel reckons that his green Irish singlet is looming, but it’s difficult to focus fully on that while trying to balance study, referring and running. With the competition getting tougher, he is determined to up his game.


“I am still competitive in making finals and winning medals in All-Ireland senior championships. I am part of a relay club record-breaking team of 41.4 seconds. I am really proud of that but that’s a story of its own.


“Circumstances that have a negative impact on my motivation are the fact that, despite winning in those championships, I received nothing from Athletics Ireland — no funding no automatic qualifications for major championships, compared to athletes from the USA.


“I know they are in a different class but it would mean a lot more if there was something that goes with it when you win. Apart from football, I love athletics. It has saved me from the depression from not playing football anymore and also helped with me adding something to identify myself with.


“I am still very new to the sport and still a lot to give overcoming injuries and being smarter with my eating and training rituals.


“When I graduate from university with a Master’s, I want to work with separated children awaiting refugee status.”


Ken McCue is an intercultural officer with Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari).


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