Monday, June 18, 2012

Singing When You're Losing

What is the correct reaction to certain and inevitable destruction? The answer is at the heart of the current spat over Roy Keane’s sing-song comments after the Irish soccer team’s annihilation at Spanish hands on Thursday night.

It’s not clear that this question is fundamental, as there are certain bottles of smoke over the issue. The hurt felt at the humiliation of defeat. The persons who’ve waited in the long grass to soften Trapattoni’s cough for him.

And the ghosts of Saipan, who have never been put to rest. All the old wounds bled fresh, with the interesting twist of a certain wizened commentator who has, not for the first time, changed sides when it suits him in his never-ending climb to the top of the stairs – the imp of the banisters, if you like.

But these are all false gods. It wasn’t really humiliating. It only felt that way. The 75% of people who responded to an RTÉ poll predicting an Irish result were kidding themselves. The Irish were 14/1 to beat Spain, the highest odds of any team at the European Championships ever. Ireland’s odds on a result against Spain were the same as the odds of a piggy revolt at the Roscrea Bacon Factory. Very long indeed.

And that’s an important point. You can only be defeated if you have a chance to win in the first place. The Republic of Ireland soccer team had no chance in the world against Spain. There’s nowhere to hide in professional sport – the Irish team is drawn from West Bromich Albion, Stoke, Wolves and other dregs of the English Premier League. The Spanish team is the combined power of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Mr Nail, meet Mr Hammer.

A heartbroken Liam Brady, a patriot who wears his heart on his sleeve always, remarked after the game that most of the Irish team, because of the teams they play in, will never have encountered  players so much better than them before. They don’t play in the Champions League, and Manchesters United and City can beat them with their second XIs. Asking Ireland to keep it kicked out to Spain was like running a Ford Cortina in the Monaco Grand Prix.

The Republic of Ireland’s game against Spain was an exercise in the Kobayashi Maru – a no-win scenario. Roy Keane was right to criticise the players – it’s been Ireland’s best players who have been at fault in Euro 2012, cruel irony – but he was wrong to criticise the supporters singing. The supporters knew that they were never going to win, but for some psychotic reason their nostrils flair and chests fill out at tricolours flying on an international stage, and Ireland having a place among the nations of the earth. Let the players worry about the game. The supporters’ role is different to that.

Take it closer to home. Kilkenny get a lot of criticism from hurling counties for the single-minded devotion to hurling, and some people wonder if Kilkenny’s hurling imperium exists at the cost of their county footballers. Kilkenny doesn’t field a team in the All-Ireland football Championship, and they are the only county not to do so.

But suppose they did. Suppose they said, ok, we’ll give it a shot. And suppose there was an open draw in Leinster and Kilkenny drew Dublin in Croke Park, in a double-header with Offaly and Wexford.

Butchery would be no name for it. It wouldn’t be so much Gaelic football as something out of Nero’s Coliseum. And suppose, as Dublin hammered the hapless cats into the Croke Park dirt, you heard, rising from the stands and the Canal End, the first strains of the Rose of Mooncoin? While the Brogans ran riot through the Kilkenny defense, all you could hear was Flow on, lovely river, flow gently along…

Would you think the Kilkenny fans losers cheering a team of losers, or would you think them patriots, for whom the black and amber is their eternal banner, through good times and bad?