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Tea Leaves

A sporting chance for peace

After Easter bombings, Sri Lanka looks to soccer for a return to normality

A boy kicks a soccer ball on a beach in Colombo.   © Reuters

My honeymoon was in Bali, not long after the 2002 bombings that killed more than 200 people. It was quieter than usual, in both senses. There were fewer people heading to the hotels, restaurants, temples and beaches of the lovely Indonesian island, and little of the buzz associated with one of Asia's prime holiday destinations.

Tourists kept to themselves, speaking quietly and avoiding the bigger attractions. People did not seem especially nervous about a repeat attack, but the atmosphere was subdued and a little surreal. Almost a decade later, there was a similar feel in Tokyo after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. For months afterwards, the world's biggest city went about its daily business in low-key fashion.

Some say that the safest time to visit a country is shortly after it has suffered a terrorist attack, because security is always heightened. For example, bomb detectors at Jakarta's hotels and shopping malls were installed after explosions in the Indonesian capital.

The latest normally peaceful country to suffer the horror of mass civilian casualties was Sri Lanka, where suicide bombers killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday in April. For a country that seems to teem with life at all times, the killings were devastating.

With thousands canceling their vacations on the island, the government was understandably keen to show that the situation had quickly returned to normal. Tourism is worth $4.4 billion a year to Sri Lanka. More than 200,000 people work in the hotel industry, with many more relying largely on visitors, including tuk-tuk drivers, restaurant workers and event organizers.

As Sri Lanka knows all too well, Pakistan presents a worrying glimpse of what can happen if there is a chronic sense of instability and insecurity. In March 2009, a bus carrying a touring Sri Lanka cricket team came under attack from terrorists in Lahore, causing the deaths of eight policemen and officials and injuries to seven players. Pakistan has not played a single home international cricket match since.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka there was an early opportunity to show that life was getting back to normal after Easter Sunday -- a two-leg qualifying tie with Macao for the 2022 soccer World Cup -- the biggest sporting event on the planet. Macao won the first leg 1-0 in China, amid greater than usual international interest because the tie was one of the first qualifiers for the tournament, scheduled to be held in Qatar.

So there was dismay in Colombo when Macao refused to travel to Sri Lanka for the second leg, scheduled for mid-June. Despite approval of the security arrangements by the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA, international soccer's governing body, Macao's soccer federation insisted its players would not be safe, and refused to allow them to travel, even though the team members absolved the federation of its legal responsibilities and threatened never to play international football again if the match was cancelled.

The reaction from the soccer authorities in Colombo was firm. "Sri Lanka Football wanted to use this occasion to show the world that 'Sri Lanka is ready' to host any international events and to stand together with all communities as one to show solidarity to sports," the authority said in a statement. "It was an effort to show everyone that Sri Lankans are still living in harmony and peace with each other except [a] few isolated minor incidents."

In late June FIFA awarded the match to Sri Lanka 3-0, sending the team through to the next round 3-1 on aggregate. But the island never got the high-profile resumption of normal activity it so desperately wanted.

Occasionally, security scares can trigger unexpected benefits. In November 2010, North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island less than two weeks before FIFA's selection of the host country for the 2022 World Cup was announced, apparently damaging South Korea's hopes of hosting the event.

Yet officials in Seoul argued that such an event could help bring harmony to the peninsula, which has been technically at war since 1950. South Korea, a rank outsider after co-hosting the World Cup with Japan eight years previously, came second of five countries in the first round of voting, behind Qatar. A few months later, it was awarded the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Sri Lanka is not in the market for such massive global events. All it wants is to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and the second round of qualification for the World Cup is a precious opportunity, with Sri Lanka drawn with the two Koreas (north and south), Lebanon and Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan will be the first of the four teams to visit Colombo on Sep.5. and authorities will be hoping that the only anxiety will be of the sporting variety.

John Duerden is an Asia-based sportswriter.

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