Earlier this summer, like most of the people living in Ireland and the active citizens of the global diaspora, I was caught up in the excitement of the Irish soccer team’s appearance in the European Championship.
It was heartening, especially in these miserable economic times, to see Ireland qualify for its first international tournament since the 2002 World Cup, now best remembered in Ireland for the infamous sequence of events leading up to it.
However disappointing it was to watch Ireland lose three times in rather spectacular fashion, it was uplifting to hear the huge crowd of Irish supporters singing “The Fields of Athenry” at the close of the 4-0 loss to Spain. It was a defiantly loyal riposte to what the supporters could see on the field and on the scoreboard. To hear the singing 3,000 miles away, in the heartland of Irish America, as I did, made it even more special.
Notwithstanding the fact that I will always support Ireland in its international matches, I have to admit that I just don’t like soccer. I have no doubt that it is the American in me, but I find it boring in the extreme. What’s more, the increasingly widespread practice of players’ diving in an effort to elicit the referee’s whistle is revolting and shouldn’t be tolerated by any soccer fan, regardless of where his or her loyalties lie. I fully accept that this is a matter of taste.
Irish people quite regularly express to me their disdain for American sports. Baseball, for instance, comes under attack as a boring and drawn out sport. Looking at it from their perspective, I can absolutely understand why so many people in Ireland and elsewhere around the world feel that way. Soccer, on the other hand, is hugely popular in Ireland.
The English Premiership League is king, and Irish fans travel to cities throughout the United Kingdom regularly to see their favourite teams play. Additionally, during the lengthy premiership season, many Irish pubs are adopted as their own by large crowds of mainly young men clad in Manchester United, Liverpool and other jerseys. They passionately and raucously cheer their teams on.
All of this is fine, I guess. To each his own, I repeat to myself. Yet in truth, I find the passion of Irish soccer fans for English soccer teams irksome. I have two primary difficulties, neither of which is novel or peculiar.
First is when these Irish fans of English soccer prioritise their love for the sport and for their team across the Irish Sea over their own national sports, football and hurling, and their county and local club teams in the two sports. Football and hurling, the two main sports of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which is still an all-amateur organisation, are played by men and women and by girls and boys for the love of the sports and for the love of where they are from.
Each sport is beautiful in its own right. Hurling is the fastest field sport in the world. Football demands a rare mixture of power and skill. But time and time again, I witness Irish people choosing to watch professional soccer from England instead of the GAA, one of this country’s foremost national treasures. It blows my mind when I see it happen.
Second is that soccer fans don’t need to look to England to find teams to support. Indeed, there is a League of Ireland and there are soccer teams the length and breadth of this island. The small and remarkably dedicated followings of these teams have struggled mightily to keep their beloved clubs afloat as the economic downturn continues to inflict hardship on the League of Ireland.
When I lived near Terryland Park in Galway, it used to break my heart to see dwindling crowds going to see the city’s League of Ireland team, Galway United, play their matches. At the very same time, significant numbers of soccer fans living in Galway were ensconced in pubs in town to watch their favourite English teams on satellite television. I’ve long kept this second difficulty to myself.
On a recent trip to northeast England, however, I read a superb letter to the editor in the Irish Post, the newspaper of the Irish diaspora in the United Kingdom. Written by Steve Bradley, a Derryman living in London, the relevant paragraphs are as follows: “I’m proud to be Irish, proud of my hometown, and I also love watching live football. Yet those three ingredients have conspired to make me a member of a little understood cult within Irish society. My name is Steve, and I’m a League of Ireland lover. I support my hometown team, Derry City FC. Our stadium isn’t great, the quality of football is variable, and attendances number a few thousand. But I don’t care. Derry is the city that made me the person I am today. And when I support my team, it’s as much an expression of civic and personal pride as it is an exercise in entertainment consumption.
Euro 2012 showed that Ireland will never be world beaters at football. But it also showed the size and passion of the support that exists for the game within our island. The tear in my eye that evening in Gdansk was borne of recognition that if only a small portion of the fans in that stadium supported domestic Irish football, we’d have a league they could all be very proud of. Instead, the ‘world’s greatest supporters’ look to English and Scottish towns they have no genuine affinity with to commandeer ‘their’ team. Irish people give many excuses for why they willingly turn their back on domestic football, yet none stand up to scrutiny. Even the ill-informed ‘why would you watch that crap?’ argument has been fatally undermined by 30,000 Irish people spending a fortune to go watch a weak team play badly in Poland.
Club football in Ireland faces many problems, as indeed does football elsewhere. But all of those challenges would be greatly eased if Irish people showed an interest in the local version of the game they claim to love.” Amen, Mr. Bradley. Thank you for saying it with far more moral authority than I ever could have.