It was 1994 and I had a pair of the new Predators on me.
They cost my dad around 100 quid in old money, and I was the bee’s knees. Then, as I trotted up for a corner thinking I was Alan Shearer, I suddenly felt a big Arab knee crash into the small of my back.
My spine jangled.
It was 8.30 am on a cold Saturday morning in the inhospitable away grounds of the Molenbeek football grounds in Brussels – an area we’ve heard popping up on the news with increasing regularity over the past few days, as the attention shifts from events Paris to their genesis in the ghettos around Europe, and Brussels in particular.
Back then it was a tricky three points for me, but today it’s ground zero in the hunt for the Jihadi fighters who threaten our way of life – just today, it was one of a number of locations where Belgian police carried out anti-terrorism raids in the wake of last week's Paris attacks.
That young teenager wanted to hurt me as much as he possibly could, and he did so because I represented everything he could never have. Freedom, prosperity and a level playing field – or an advantage, I should say – in the game of life.
This is just my own personal and insignificant anecdote, sure, but it's been on my mind a lot this past week.
I started to learn back then what the world is slowing starting to realise now – that there’s a whole generation of angry Muslim first- and second-generation youths who feel they have very little to live for.
Back then it manifested itself through tough tackles, rampant intimidation and a sense of injustice. Some 21 years later, though, that sense of disillusionment and anger has grown to the point where young men just like this one are taking up arms and engaging in a violent, bloody and ceaseless war against those who shut them out.
While many look at Syria or Iraq as the epicentre of this ‘war’, there’s a growing understanding that places like Molenbeek and other ghettoised banlieues are where this started. It’s what goes on here, as much as in the Middle East, that leads to British tourists getting mowed down on beaches in Tunisia, Russian tourists getting blown out of the sky… and French millennials being gunned down as they enjoyed a gig in the Bataclan.
Fast forward 20 years to Dublin 8 and Clanbrassil Street where I currently live. It happens to be a burgeoning area with a massive Muslim influence. I eat in Kurdish restaurants, shop in Halal shops and interact on a daily basis with more people from a Muslim background than I do with ‘Irish’ people.
Those Muslims enhance my neighbourhood, add to the culture of the city – and now call this place home.
However, already we’re seeing them getting castigated, pigeon-holed and ostracised in the same way I saw in Belgium growing up; the annexation of their personalities and beliefs has already started.
I’ve heard locals in shops and pubs call them everything from “bombing Arab pricks” to “these ISIS bastards on our doorstep”. The ‘us against them’ mentality – one that I was so familiar with growing up in Europe, but is somewhat new to Dublin – has already emerged, to the point where having brown skin or wearing a hijab puts them on the same pedestal as the violent thugs who murdered people in Paris last Friday.
You don’t need to tell me how fucking ludicrous that is. Or maybe you do.
The parallels with Nazism are striking, and just like that regime ISIS are masters at outrageous acts of violence and masters of PR that splits otherwise functioning communities. And much in the same way, their tactics are already delivering massive, terrifying success.
Thinking back to Molenbeek again, I remember how I felt walking off the pitch. We’d lost 3-0, a few players had been sent off on both sides, others had been injured and the referee needed an escort back to his dressing room.
Even as a 15-year-old, it wasn’t difficult to tell that something wasn’t quite right. When I looked into the eyes of the opposition players I didn’t see happiness. The win wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They were furious; they wanted to hurt us, to hit us really fucking hard. Society had cast them aside and my foreign accent and fancy boots made me an obvious target for them to vent some of their fury.
I can’t for one second justify the mowing down of innocent civilians. The parallels with Nazism are striking, and just like that regime ISIS are masters at outrageous acts of violence and masters of PR that splits otherwise functioning communities. And much in the same way, their tactics are already delivering massive, terrifying success.
And this doesn’t just happen in the hotbeds – in the ghettos, or in the ISIS-controlled territories thousands of miles away. It happens right here, in ‘normal’ society – in the society that ostensibly condemns what’s going on, but in fact fuels it.
Just look at this poll of Americans in 1939, as World War II was ramping up into first gear. While this was nearly three years before the US entered the war, it was just months before the Battle of Britain was fought over the south coast of the UK; long past the point where Hitler had been accepted as a major threat to society, and two months after Kristallnacht.
US Jan 20 ’39: Should the US government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany? pic.twitter.com/5cFs5RabQn— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 17, 2015
Two months after a coordinated series of attacks on the Jewish people across Nazi-controlled Europe, you had nearly two thirds of Americans saying they wouldn’t accept a mere 10,000 children – from a population of 130 million, equivalent to Ireland accepting 357 children today – in order to keep them safe from the ugly situation developing on the other side of the world.
You can put this down to the economic situation of the day to a certain extent, as the country recovered from the Great Depression – but you can also say it’s clear evidence that, repugnant as Hitler was to most Americans at this point, there was a discord between what was going on ‘over here’ and ‘over there’.
That discord leaves us with our guards down – it leaves us blind to the bigger picture and open to fear and division, and that’s exactly what ISIS are doing so successfully here.
We’re being split, and demonising those communities who add so much to our society – and who are often most vulnerable.
Naturally, as with so many other issues, we’ll look to our governments, politicians and leaders to right the wrongs of terrorism. But as Abu Gharib, Iraq, Syria, Guantanamo and the annexation of whole communities into ghettos shows, we shouldn’t trust our leaders.
This is something we need to take into our own hands.
We need to respond to this terror and bloodshed with love. Only by embracing our Muslim friends, by making them feel welcome and by being inclusive, will we win.
I now wish instead of leaving that ground in Mollenbeek giving the lads the fingers from the back of car and telling my teammates how “next time we’d beat those Arabs” that I’d found it within myself to stay there.
Does it sound seriously fucking naïve? Yes, of course. Will it change things overnight, and stop these atrocities from ever happening again? No. It won’t.
I do agree with President Hollande when he says that we are at war. But we’re at war with ourselves; we’re at war with our arrogant attitude to those on the very margins of society, with different beliefs and circumstances to our own.
And that’s what’s caused this situation.
Only through embracing Muslim society, making friends with the Muslim people and by making them feel at home among us will we ultimately win. This is our own war and friendliness and love are our weapons.
Age has granted me a certain amount of wisdom. I now wish instead of leaving that ground in Molenbeek giving the lads the fingers from the back of car and telling my teammates how “next time we’d beat those Arabs” that I’d found it within myself to stay there.
Shake their hands, buy them a beer, chat to them. Give them the friendship, inclusion and sense of belonging that pretty much every human wants – and give them a way out of the incubator.