A chance for sanity to prevail

The leap of faith to somewhat throw open the gates to the match between Bonnyrigg White Eagles and Sydney United deserves to be applauded.

Bravo to Bonnyrigg White Eagles, Sydney United and Football NSW. Sooner or later, it had to happen. For the first time in eight years, a match between these two sides will be open to the public, although - sensibly - the sale of tickets for Sunday's match is being strictly controlled.

Nonetheless this leap of faith represents a brave, but significant, step on the difficult road towards normalising relations between two clubs who have traditionally represented the local Serbian and Croatian communities. Fingers crossed, sanity prevails and we get to celebrate what ultimately counts. The football. If time heals all wounds, then there's a chance we might.

It's not worth raking over the coals of what occured the last time these clubs met in an open forum, in a NSW Premier League match at Edensor Park back in 2005. Suffice to say what occurred at that game, and over the subsequent days, did no one any good. Not the perpetrators, not the two clubs, not the competition, and not football in general.

By accident and/or design, Bonnyrigg White Eagles and Sydney United had been kept apart during the previous 22 years. Sadly, they've only met behind closed doors since.

Is it a risk to test the waters once again? Of course it is. But the greater risk is to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

In many ways, these two clubs are setting a benchmark for second-tier football in this country. On the field, they're continually challenging for honours, and producing talented players. Off the field, the facilities they've developed through volunteer labour and donations at Bonnyrigg and Edensor Park would be the envy of many Hyundai A-League clubs.

In normal circumstances, the only limits to their ambitions would be their own imagination. But unfortunately there's a catch. Until these two clubs learn to get along, they'll struggle to fulfill their potential.

As the NPL model entrenches itself across the nation, there's less room for residual ethnic hostilities. Once upon a time state federations couldn't afford to ignore the big ethnic clubs. Now they can't afford to keep some of them unless they get rid of the worst of their historical baggage. The smart ones will choose to highlight the best aspects of their heritage instead.

Such has been the progress made by the new breed of semi-pro clubs - those focused on geography rather than nationality - that simple arithmetic tells you state football authorities are now spoilt for choice. They don't need to keep playing games behind closed doors to fill the fixture list. Nor should they be expected to.

The challenge for Bonnyrigg Whites Eagles and Sydney United is to place themselves beyond reproach. Critically, that includes the players, the coaches, and the officials. Knowing many of the people involved, I'm confident they'll rise to the challenge.

For all that, there are still people within both communities who fret that the move to partially open the doors may have come to soon. Understandable. But in my view it's got to be worth a try.

It's been 14 years since the end of the Yugoslav wars. If you've been to any of the former Yugoslav republics in recent years - as I have - then you'll have seen how much tensions have eased. Sooner or later these calmer waters will reach Australia. It's just a question of when.

Two months ago, in Zagreb, Croatia hosted Serbia in a key World Cup qualifier. Before the game, and after the final whistle, the coach of Croatia, Igor Stimac, and the coach of Serbia, Sinisa Mihajlovic, embraced. Until those poignant moments, they had carried a 22-year-old feud stretching back to the last Yugoslav Cup final between Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade.

No one is suggesting Stimac and Mihajlovic will suddenly become best mates. But, in the toughest circumstances imaginable, they chose to set the right example. Courage brings its own reward. I'm sure we'll see more of the same this weekend.