Saturday, March 24, 2007

Look! No Hands! - Soccer at Croker

Forget about the rugby: the real story about Croke Park being opened up to 'foreign' sports is the entrance of the Irish football team there for the first time, something that I never expected to see when I was growing up. This is analogous to the US opening an embassy in Pyongyang; the rugby team running out at Croker was, in comparison, about as momentous as John Howard sending an Aussie ambassador to North Korea. The Irish media understood this and so had to manufacture a controversy about 'God Save the Queen' being played at Croker to make the build-up to the England game a bit spicier. Rugby is a sport that has traditionally had barely any crossover with Gaelic games (or football) in terms of players or supporters. Soccer however, especially in places like Donegal, Sligo, South Tipperary, Cork, Dublin, Dundalk and in the north, among Catholics, has always been the chief rival of the GAA, the Ban on GAA members playing or attending foreign sports owes more to self-preservation than knee-jerk Anglophobia (Rule 21, was, of course, determined by the latter).

There was always a lot of pettiness in the GAA's attitudes towards soccer, especially as so many of its members were enthusiastic players and followers of it, seeing it, not as an English sport, but a world one, or more often as simply a game to play during the winter when Gaelic football was dormant. I remember being kicked off the local GAA pitch by one spiteful local official one evening when I was about ten for playing 'soccer'; this act of interference backfired badly on his part as the result was that we reformed the underage soccer team and promptly went about winning almost everything there was to win. Everybody on the team also played on the local Gaelic team, which did fairly well too. This incident was typical of many people growing up in Ireland, even for up to twenty-five years after Rule 42 was rescinded in 1971.

But the GAA has changed a lot since then, partly because the Old Guard has died out, partly because of a large amount of its membership playing other sports, and also because both Gaelic and hurling weathered admirably the competition from soccer in the 1990s. Croke Park realised that soccer, despite its rise in popularity was not the threat it was once thought to be, and Gaelic games remain undiminished in their appeal in their traditional strongholds. In fact, the success of our rugby and soccer teams internationally (not to mention the cricket team) is remarkable given that such a small population base is spread so thin over four team sports. Countries of similar sizes, such as Scotland, Croatia, Norway, Denmark and Finland usually have to grapple with no more than two sports.

And today, Ireland face Wales in the first soccer game ever at Croker. Given the decrepit nature of the FAI at the moment, the GAA can even be favourably viewed as the more visionary, more professional, and more enlightened organisation. They did, after all, get their act together and construct one of the finest stadiums in Europe (albeit with the help of substantial public funding). There are few die-hards left in the GAA that will spite the footballers (or the rugby players either); the majority of GAA members will rather feel extra pride at the international attention their magnificent stadium is getting.

As for the match itself, we live in hope. If we do not beat Wales and then Slovakia on Wednesday, the remaining five group games will be nothing but glorified friendlies. Even with two wins (against teams that we would normally expect to beat at home) the outlook is bleak enough. The best thing to hope for would be for Germany to run away with the group (starting today with a win in Prague, which is not beyond them) and for the Czechs to drop points here and there, in which a case an Ireland team producing improbably superhuman performances might grab second place. There is an air of the Euro 88 qualifiers about this group, and remember we won that group at the death in spite of not really winning that many games at all, and playing atrociously against the minnows of the group, Luxembourg. It is also easy to forget that Ireland have turned out two creditable - if hardly astounding - performances in this group, against both the Germans and the Czechs. But of course, we took only one point from those two games and, as Johnny Giles remarked this week, Staunton's boys are playing 'reaction football' alternating good performance with abominable ones - a clear sign of a lack of management. And the management is the real problem, especially when one sees the superb seasons the likes of Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ireland, Richard Dunne, Stephen Hunt and Robbie Keane are having in the Premiership. It is true that, as Roy Keane has pointed out, few of the senior players are being quite so good, and his namesake certainly never matches his Spurs form in a green shirt. We remain optimistic however. The Irish football team is one of the few things that still evokes a strange child-like state of innocence in Seanachie.