Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Defence of Footballers

I hadn't intended pouring cold water on Ireland's historic win against England yesterday but a quote from an Ireland rugby fan in today's L'Équipe resurrected a few of my pet peeves. He said that God Save the Queen was never going to be booed because 'Irish rugby has always set itself apart from politics. If it were a football match, it would have been a completely different matter.' I said as much on my posting earlier on today. However I didn't intend to say that rugby was morally superior in this matter, as that person obviously did. Once again I am sick to the back teeth of rugby being compared favourably to football.

I have no animus for the Irish rugby team; their performance yesterday looked superb (I only saw the last twenty minutes) and rugby is a sport, like cricket, that I can say I admire without being really that bothered about it. But this valorisation of rugby players at the expense of 'overpaid' footballers is something that I cannot stand. Every time I hear this lauding of the moral virtues of rugby players vis à vis footballers, usually enunciated every time there is a tabloid-friendly spit-roasting scandal, it makes me sick. Such pundits make it sound like the choice between football and rugby was something that was made for games in 1st year at Belvo or Wesley. Or between Geography and German for Junior Cert. Never is there any reference to the social background of the various principles involved. The reason that God Save the Queen was thankfully not booed yesterday was not because rugby folk are more decent than footballing people but simply because their sport is for the most part divorced from many social realities. Rugby is followed in places like Donnybrook, the Malone Road and other well-heeled areas of Irish towns (yes, I know about Limerick, but this exception has been wheeled out far too many times for it to be relevant anymore); there aren't many hardcore Republicans in those parts. And so be it, I'm not hoping for a surge in support for Republican Sinn Féin in Dublin South East any more than I am for one for the PDs.

But this is the case for rugby with regard to football the world over. The rugby World Cup later this year will feature twenty countries, when one would be hard pushed to find half that amount where most people know they even have a rugby team representing them. Rugby is a minority sport (and even in Ireland this is very much the case) whereas football is not. By that information alone one might glean that professional footballers are drawn from a wider pool than professional rugby players, and therefore might be spared the condescending stereotypes that they are subjected to.

Rugby players generally benefit from a better education and more privileged upbringing than the majority of footballers do, and I don't begrudge them that, and neither am I salivating for the downfall of Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell in a tabloid sting. But I would like a bit of balance when comparing the two sports. When one hears rugby being lauded at the expense of football one hears the ugly resonance of class prejudice. Rugby and football are not rival sports; there is scarcely an overlap in personnel between the two. It is Gaelic football and 'soccer' that scramble for the talent, the two most popular sports in the country (yes, sorry, hurling is an exotic curiosity confined to the southern part of the island); and that, rather than anti-English bigotry, was the real reason for the GAA's infamous bans.

There are not many Irish sportswriters who have pointed out that the Irish rugby team is an irrelevancy for most Irish people, though Paul Howard, creator of the hilarious Ross O'Carroll-Kelly is one, as is my fellow Sligo man Eamonn Sweeney, who has this great piece in the Sindo today about Craig Bellamy. Not saying that I agree with him about Bellamy but he sums up what I've been saying; don't damn all footballers on the strength of a few muppets.


Pavement Trauma said...

I am not so sure the Irish Rugby team are an 'irrelevancy' for most Irish people.

An average of over one million viewers tuned into RTÉ on Saturday to witness Ireland beat England 43-13 at Croke Park. Obviously the hype attracted more than the usual audience but still over half a million watched the *entire* Six Nations coverage that day. Three quarters of a million watch Ireland v France, half a million watched Wales v Ireland.

seanachie said...

Perhaps 'novelty' might be a better word. TV viewing figures don't tell the whole story though. According to figures published in Libération in a survey on attendance at top-level domestic sporting events before the Ireland-France game 60% of Irish people polled said that they had attended a GAA game in the previous year (by which one assumes Gaelic and hurling were lumped in together). 16% had been to a soccer game, while a mere 8% had attended a rugby game. Even the struggling National League can therefore attract twice as much as rugby can.

Of course people will watch a sporting event on TV that is of such historical significance (and being on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon helps too) - as I said I even watched the last twenty minutes. Whether this translates into a serious interest in the sport is another thing. People are saying rugby is becoming more popular in Ireland but TV viewing figures mean little if the sport is not played in most small towns and villages, by Ulster Catholics and by the urban working class in both the Republic and the North. It's still a minority sport. Perhaps not exactly irrelevant then but I'm not really persuaded of its relevancy either.

seanachie said...

On the subject of viewing figures, if FIFA and other bodies massage the figures one imagines RTE and other TV stations might well do so too...

Pavement Trauma said...

Obviously rugby is a minority sport in Ireland, but on those figures from Liberation, so is soccer. Does 60% attending a GAA match not sound pretty high to you? To take a sexist approach to it, this would mean every man and 20% of women attended a GAA match last year. Unlikely to say the least.

I disagree that rugby is only a 'novelty' to people due to the significance/hype of the events - half a million watching the less high profile match against Wales is still half a million people. Think of the three quarters of a million or so that watched Munster's Heineken Cup final match, or their ~70,000 travelling support or the 48,000 who attended Leinster-Ulster a Celtic League match. Irish national soccer games only gets these numbers for matches in the World Cup finalS or critical qualifiers. Domestic soccer matches get nothing like those numbers. Support for rugby is growing outside of its traditional D4/North/Posh Cork/Limerick strongholds. My old school - a northside Dublin CBS - now plays it. Last night I was walking past St Marks Church on Pearse St, Dublin (the proverbial urban-working-class-inner-city neighbourhood) and there were four 10 year olds playing rugby on the green in front of it. It is amazing what a bit of national success can do for a sport.

There is a more significant point to be made. In your original post you were bemoaning the unfavourable comparisons made between soccer and rugby players and seem to be implying that this is because no account is taken of the different background of rugby players to soccer players. Something about this makes me quesy. Are you saying that because soccer players are more likely to come from a working class background that they are more likely to engage in off-field tabloid-esque behaviour (i.e. drinking/fighting/shagging)? Is this not the 'class prejudice' of low expectations?

seanachie said...

My point regarding the media coverage of footballers vis-a-vis rugby players was rather that only those players that engaged in bad behaviour are considered newsworthy. The millions of football players worldwide are therefore classed the same way. If there was the same amount of scrutiny applied to 'rugby players behaving badly' the headlines could be quite similar. But there is very little outrage expressed regarding rugby players because, they're not working class, and, therefore not to be deplored. To put it bluntly, football players are despised by the media because they're working class.

As for rugby being played outside its traditional strongholds in Ireland, best of luck to it, but let's not get carried away.