Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sporting Year

This year, for what must be the first time in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Dublin struck a blow for the little guy.

At the start of the summer the Championship looked like it would be played between The Big Three of Cork, Kerry and Tyrone, with the other counties supplying cannon fodder when required. As Kevin Egan has often pointed out, long shot winners do not generally win All-Irelands. Your correspondent has no figures to hand, but it’s a reasonable guess that Dublin were the longest price All-Ireland winners since Armagh in 2002.

Kerry left the game behind them of course, but Dublin still had to complete their part of the bargain and pick it up. Kerry have left games behind them before, but teams have not had the wherewithal – or the Kevin McMenamins – to take advantage. Sligo come to mind in 2006, as do Limerick in 2004. Good for Dublin, who are deserving champions.

Kerry do not wash linen in public, but it would be wonderful to know how they’re analysing this loss at home. How do they view Jack O’Connor in the Kingdom?

O’Connor has won three All-Irelands but those were won against teams – Cork and Mayo – whom Kerry expect to beat as a matter of course. In a county with so many wins, those will be taken for granted.

Against teams whom Kerry do take seriously, O’Connor’s record is played three, lost three – two against Tyrone, one against Dublin. There’s huge pressure on O’Connor and his aging team to make up for this next year.

From a parochial standpoint, Mayo had a superb season. James Horan was extremely lucky not to get sucker-punched against London but other than that he didn’t put a foot wrong during either League or Championship. Mayo are looking forward to another crack at it in 2012 – county board shenanigans permitting, of course.

In hurling, Kilkenny and Tipperary served another epic All-Ireland Final with Kilkenny proving there’s life in the old cat yet. The only pity was that the hurling Championship did go according to script, and there were no counties able to keep up with the standard set by Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Galway blew up – again, Cork’s civil war continues and the revolutionaries of the ‘nineties now struggle to keep their heads above water. Anthony Daly had another superb year with Dublin but it still seems somehow easier to see Galway beating Kilkenny twice than Dublin. And it’s more or less impossible to see Galway beating Kilkenny just the once.

The Rugby World Cup is struggling as a tournament. The balance is incorrect. There are ten top-flight rugby nations in the world – the Six Nations, the Tri Nations and Argentina. The other ten are making up the numbers – and are quickly put in their place if they dare to point that out, as Samoa’s unfortunate Eliota Sapolu discovered.

This means is that there are three weeks of group games at any Rugby World Cup that whittle ten teams down to eight. That’s not very effective. It also makes for extremely stilted rugby in the knockout stages, when the terror of losing dominates. The balance between the relatively carefree group games and the all-or-nothing knockout games is wrong.

The final itself is proof positive. New Zealand is the greatest rugby nation in the world and nobody with any feeling for the game could begrudge them, but 8-7 is a scoreline from the 1950s, not the 21st Century professional era. The only thing anyone will remember from this tournament is relief for the New Zealanders, and not much else.

Ireland’s win over Australia is bittersweet, looking back. Ireland had never won a quarter-final before the tournament, and they still haven’t. Irish rugby is at an extraordinary crossroads right now. If rugby can transition from the golden generation of BOD, ROG and POC, then it suddenly becomes reasonable to assume that rugby can overtake the GAA in popularity.

On that point – the chaps on Newstalk’s Off the Ball were floating an idea back in November that, if New Zealand could host a World Cup then so could Ireland, using GAA stadia for the games. They never quite explained why the GAA would want to sign its own death warrant by facilitating the tournament though.

Maybe they’re saving it for next year. An Spailpín will be listening closely, as ever – shirts don’t iron themselves, you know, and listening to Off the Ball remains the best way of dealing with the misery. Here’s to 2012.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Christmas Everybody

Another Christmas rolls around. Some of us are still here, holding our ground, some have moved on to what I hope is a better station.

In the meantime, thanks for coming to read the blog over the year, even though circumstances mean that I can't post as often as I used to or would like. I still like to hop a ball when I can, and I appreciate everyone who comes along to watch it bounce.

To celebrate the feast, here's Yo-Yo Ma and wonderful Alison Krauss performing The Wexford Carol. Go mbeirfimid go léir beo ag an am seo arís.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Michael O'Hehir and his Legacy

John Bowman’s nasty and mean-spirited attacks on Michael O’Hehir in Bowman’s new book are further proof that there is such a thing as a Dublin 4 media elite, and that it exists independently of the vast majority of opinion in the country.

Michael O’Hehir wasn’t just the most loved man in the country. He was the most trusted. For instance; when CIE first introduced signal-controlled level crossings, stop gates where train tracks cross the public road, they needed a public information advertisement to explain to people what the gates meant and how you were supposed to navigate them.

Bear in mind that traffic lights wouldn’t be common at all outside of Dublin and the bigger cities. These level crossings would have been as alien to the majority population as HG Wells’s Martian war machines.

So what the nation saw in the ad breaks before, during and after the Riordans was a Ford Granada rolling up to the junction, stopping, and a small man with combed over dark hair and a Columbo overcoat getting out.

Once the little man started talking the nation immediately recognised the voice and knew it was in safe hands. If Michael O’Hehir said these yokes were ok, then they were ok. Michael O’Hehir was a man you could trust.

Nobody had that level of rapport with the Irish people, either before or after. Plenty of people couldn’t stand Gay Byrne, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone having an objection to Michael O’Hehir. It would be like picking a fight with Santa.

Impossible, until now. According to John Burns’s review of Bowman’s book in the Sunday Times, Bowman criticises O’Hehir under two species. The first is that O’Hehir saw a TV commentary as being the same as a radio commentary, and the second is that O’Hehir played down sendings-off, the better to protect people’s good name and the good name of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

TV commentary is in theory different to radio, yes. The broad stroke is that you need fewer words for TV because people can see the pictures. But a good TV commentary is still better than a bad radio one.

This is certainly the opinion of the people, who for years have muted their TVs in order to listen to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the radio. The distinction didn’t seem to knock as much of a stir out of them as it did out of John Bowman.

What those people are going to do now that Ó Muircheartaigh has retired and RTÉ have decided they don’t need a chief GAA commentator at all, at all is hard to say. Bowman’s own opinion of the current state of RTÉ’s GAA commentaries is unrecorded.

That said, it’s hard to see any of O’Hehir’s current successors being employed by the BBC, as O’Hehir was for Grand National commentaries. The National has a relay of commentators, because it’s so long. O’Hehir’s job was to take over at Beecher’s Brook, a place where the race was often won or lost. A considerable responsibility for a man who didn’t know the difference between TV and radio.

To say nothing of the BBC’s concerns about the integrity of journalism, and any attempts by O’Hehir to protect the good names of the horses, should any of them take it easy around the back straight.

Did any newspapers splash that the Irish rugby team were on the beer with the English that infamous night in Auckland? Why did it take so long for the truth about Trapattoni’s dropping of Andy Reid to come to light? Whom exactly does John Bowman think he’s kidding?

The GAA players of Michael O’Hehir’s era lived in a different world with different rules to those of the modern world and the modern, all-intrusive media. Different Ireland, different rules. If John Bowman wants to have a go at anyone, perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

John Burns reported in his review in the Sunday Times that Bowman lists the producers of Prime Time Investigates. Bowman refrains from having a pop at those worthies for not knowing the difference between radio and TV, or for protecting the good name of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the ordinary working man. More smoked salmon, Marmaduke?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Anyone for Leadership?

How craven is the Government’s attitude to the inevitable EU referendum? It’s not quite as craven as the man in the women and children’s lifeboat but goodness gracious, it’s a long step away from the bold Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock in terms of inspiring the nation and giving light in darkness.

It seems clear that the Government will spend from now until the final EU deal is settled praying that God will somehow intervene and save them from having to bring another EU referendum before the people. The Government will not be alone in this; the entire Irish political establishment will be praying every bit as hard.

In a functioning democracy, the referendum would be a matter of course. In a country where there is political talent and will, they could even write a new constitution that would prevent these constant referenda clogging up the path to progress.

But Ireland is not a functioning democracy. It is a state governed by a tiny elite. A tiny elite who have zero interest in leading the people. A tiny elite who have zero interest in explaining what the European Union is and how Ireland has benefited immeasurably from it since 1973.

A tiny elite who prefers treat the sovereign people as mushrooms, explaining the EU only in terms of either a gravy train that hands out free loot (1973-2011) or an oppressor who grind the helpless Irish under a jackboot, in the face of which the sovereign people and their glorious government are equally helpless (2011-present day).

Successive Governments have refused to make it clear to the people just how Ireland integrates in terms of the EU whole, and just how high we are punching above our weight. Instead, the nation is told to eat their sweets and don’t be worrying their little heads.

Ireland has become a sink estate of the EU, living on handouts with not only no interest in bettering its own situation, but with no idea if or how that situation can bettered in the first place.

Which is how the latest mess has come to pass. Now the political elite has to go the electorate and present another referendum to the people. Another referendum that will be impossible to understand, at a moment in time when the people are very far from being receptive.

That was one of the problems with Lisbon. Referenda work best with simple issues that can be clearly expressed. Treaties, or, the Lord save us, “compacts,” can only be properly understood by constitutional lawyers. Joe Citizen hasn’t a chance.

It should never have come to this. The political class should have seen this coming since Maastricht twenty years ago, if not since ascension in 1973. Start as you mean to continue.

But they didn’t see it coming. Not even kinda. The implications of Maastricht didn’t even get a mention in Seán Duignan’s memoir of his time as Government press secretary of the time.

The chief concerns of the Government in June 1992, when Maastricht was passed, was whether they’d have to devalue the punt or what would happen at the Beef Tribunal. The Beef Tribunal!

Maastricht went through the Irish political system painlessly, without raising a single flag. The patient never felt a thing.

John Waters rightly called out Olivia O’Leary when she was doing to post-hoc reasoning on her radio piece for RTÉ’s Drivetime recently. The only people who objected to Maastricht were loopers like the Democratic Left and the late Ray Crotty. Every else just said: “Free loot? Where do I sign?”

When people become adjusted to a continual flow of European wine and honey, you can understand how they might get cranky when that flow is suddenly switched to cod liver oil. And the longer the political elite puts off having a birds and bees conversation with the nation about the nature of the European Union, the harder it’ll be to save the day.

Because the day can still be saved. The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil officer class understand how Europe works, even if they have been shockingly remiss in bringing the rank and file with them. Labour’s days of opposing Europe are well behind them and besides; a EU referendum would be a good chance for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to show the statesmanship he wittered on about so tiresomely before the election.

The floating joker is Sinn Féin of course. Sinn Féin have been quiet since Friday, as they do their accounting on how the land lies. Good for them.

Sinn Féin have been anti every EU referenda. It will be interesting to see how they could oppose this one – and thus side with David Cameron, leader of the one country in Europe which has been less well served by its leaders about the EU than ourselves.

Kicking Sinn Féin has only recently been replaced by kicking the pope as a Fine Gael favourite pastime. Will even the chance to put Gurry on the hot seat for while tempt the Government to say to hell with it, we’ll have a referendum and live or die by it? Or will they stay hiding under the table, hoping the storm will pass?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

So. Farewell then, Socrates of Brazil

Today is a sad day for people of a certain age. News that the great Brazilian soccer player Socrates has died from an intestinal infection at the age of 57 reminds everyone who watched the 1982 and 1986 World Cups that we are mortal and we shall die.

It was a different era. There is saturation soccer coverage now – so much so that it’s easy to forget that one of the reasons the World Cup was a big deal previously is because there was nothing else.

In Ireland, what you knew about soccer you read in the papers or saw in highlights or what you saw in those strange midweek European Cup games, where Liverpool or Nottingham Forest would play in Belgrade or Budapest in a stadium ringed by an running track and a phalanx of heavily-armed military with the crowd deep in the shadows.

And then, every four summers, weeks and weeks of the stuff. Because you didn’t know who the players were, you were always ready to believe the hype, that these were colossi who bestrode the very earth, while mortals worshipped at their feet. Or at least, that's how they looked to a child.

Ricky Villas and Ossie Ardilles were the only players from outside the British Isles playing in England, and they both had to go back home to Argentina when the Falklands War broke out. Pre-internet and pre-satellite TV, all you knew were names and reputations – Rummenegge of West Germany, Platini of France, Maradona of Argentina. And everyone who played for Brazil. Every one of them.

Brazil arrived at the 1982 World Cup with too many central midfielders and not enough wide men. In a language that had yet to be invented, Brazil saw that as a feature, not a bug.

Brazil lit up Spain playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Zico and Socrates as the penultimate two. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, nor would again. Brazil were at once fire and ice, rapier and broadsword, and became the most beloved international team since their own 1970 incarnation.

And then they lost. Brazil met Italy, the supreme pragmatists, in Barcelona’s Estadio Sarriá in the final game of their second round group. Brazil needed only a draw to go through. They lost, 3-2. Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick and Zico would later describe the game as “the day football died.”

That was Zico enjoying the benefit of hindsight. Because four years later Brazil returned to the World Cup, and they lustre still shone just as brightly from the famous yellow jerseys.

Mexico 1986 was the last great World Cup. It was the last World Cup to showcase a man who was undeniably the Greatest Player in the World (don’t forget, Messi has yet to perform on the greatest stage, as Maradona, Cruyff (when he was bothered) and Pele have all done). Not only that, it had a number of teams who could have won it and deserved it just as much as Argentina did. Chiefly Brazil. Of course.

What a magnificent, frightening team Brazil were. Zico was a fitful due to injury, but Socrates was still there, pulling the strings. Unusually tall and gangly for a soccer player, with a distinctive thick black beard, he looked both completely at home and strangely out of place.

Brazil met the European Champions France in the quarter-finals. France weren’t that good, but Brazil ran out of luck that day in Guadalajara, losing to France on penalties.

The game turned on a penalty during the ninety minutes. Socrates had been taking them all during the tournament. He had a bizarre action – one step before striking the ball – but it worked. Keepers had no idea what to make of it.

But Zico had come on as a sub just before the penalty. Zico wore Brazil’s iconic No 10 shirt. Zico had never missed a penalty in his career. Zico had to take the penalty, because he was Zico.

France’s Joel Bats guessed correctly in goal. Zico missed, and the game went to penalties.

Socrates stepped up for the first. Bats was inspired by the earlier save of Zico. Bats saved Socrates’ shot, France won the shootout 4-3, and Brazil were gone. France went onto face Germany in the semi-final, and lost 0-2, to goals by Andy Brehme at the start and Rudi Völler at the finish. Bats was at fault for both of them.

And meanwhile Brazil are gone forever. The world waits for another Brazil to turn on the magic like they did in the 1960s and 1980s but that’s thirty years ago, and counting. The game has moved on. Whether it’s evolved or devolved is a debate for those who still love it. I don’t. Not any more.

All I do know is there once was a man, Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, whom the world knew simply as Socrates, and he had magic in him. May God grant the eternal reward due him for the joy he brought to millions and millions of people, all over the world.