Monday, June 20, 2011

Champions League Format Me Hat - in Defence of the Irish Summer

There are three events that mark every Irish summer. They are, in reverse order, the climbing of the Reek, the saving of the hay and the well meaning but hopelessly naïve call for the GAA to scrap the Championship and replace it with a “Champions League” style competition.

Keith Barr and Mick O’Keeffe are the latest men to make this argument. You can read them yourselves, as there’s no need to break down the piece sentence by sentence here.

The reasons the Champions League style format is nonsense are many. Here are the two biggest.

Inter-county competition will always be unequal as long as there are unequal populations in the counties and unequal interest in the GAA within those counties. That is a fact of life. You might beat one of those realities, as Offaly have in their history and please God will do again, but you can’t beat both.

The only way to create an equal playing field is do away with the birth qualification for players, so that counties could pick from the same pool. The cost of that would be soul of the Association itself.

An Spailpín suspects that the single most important thing that drives the GAA is pride of place. A Mayo team that can only be filled by Mayomen is worth one hundred All-Irelands lost. A Championship team of ringers and mercenaries is worth less than nothing.

Pride of place is more important than the game for the majority of people, myself included. Inequality is the price of regional identity. It’s a price worth paying.

The second reason is given to us by Doctor Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs. How we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.

A Champions League style format doesn’t present us with things we see every day. It presents us with things we’ve never seen before. It seeks out things to covet, and ignores what we see every day, and think about every day, and look forward to every day.

A Champions League style format on the Barr/O’Keeffe model wipes out over one hundred years of history, and wishes us to pretend that a game between Mayo and Laois will have the same attraction as Mayo v Roscommon or Laois v Offaly.

Well, it doesn’t and it won’t, even though Laois played in Division 2 this year and the Ros Division 4. It might, of course, in the 125 years it’ll take the Champions League format to be as old as the current Championship, but it doesn’t seem sufficiently likely to bet the organisation’s future on it.

We don’t seek out things to covet. We covet what we know. Mayo playing Galway nearly every year isn’t boring. If Mayo playing Galway ever year is boring, then so is Christmas, so are the Galway Races, so is the Rose of Tralee and so is the US Masters. They are all infinite rhapsodies on a central theme. Always the same, always utterly different, every single time.

The Championship needs reform, of course. Even the Eifel Tower gets a soupçon of paint every now and again. An Spailpín’s own reform would be to return the Qualifiers to the Hell from whence they came. Nothing good can come of a system that supports the strong and punishes the weak. Failing that, deny a qualifier place for the current Champions, and see who takes their provincial championship seriously then.

But the chief thing An Spailpín would like to see is a little deeper analysis of what the GAA and the Championship actually are, rather than simplistic comparisons to what happens somewhere else.

Because there is nothing like the GAA Championship, anywhere. It’s doubly unique – a hugely popular amateur association that insists on loyalty of place being more important than exultation of talent.

Irish writers, poets and scientists should be pouring over this thing, and celebrating it for what it is – a unicorn, a magical mythical creature that somehow still exists in a base and materialistic world.

Instead, we get people wanting to burn the horn right off the unicorn to have it look like just another pony, and then wonder in a few years why nobody comes to see it any more.