Archives for posts with tag: soccer

It’s World Cup time again and as usual I’m changing into the person I normally swear never to be: a football addict. I mean addict. I have watched almost every match since the competition began, honourable exceptions being the Ivory Coast vs Japan, which kicked off at 2am last Friday, so perhaps there is still hope.

I have been a fan since the golden year of 1990, when Ireland found itself getting into the quarter finals of the World Cup in Italy. The magic of those weeks is something few people of a certain age will ever forget.

I’m not sure what it is about the World Cup that turns me into the type of person I normally have little in common with. Football can be exciting, sure, but often it is boring and uneventful. There are many people who can speak to the intricacies of midfield strategy and defensive positions at the goal mouth. For me, I usually just see players kicking a ball to each other and sometimes getting tackled for their efforts.

No, for me the excitement comes from elsewhere. It’s the drama and the stories that unfold in the course of the tournament: the freak chances and frequent injustices that send whole nations from elation to depression in seconds, and vice versa. The World Cup can be seen as a collection of narratives more intriguing than anything the world of fiction has to offer.

This has been a particularly exciting World Cup. The terrific performances of Algeria and the USA had me on the edge of my seat. The surprising ineptitude of Spain and Portugal had me mystified. Suarez’s biting incident and Arjen Robben’s dive. England doughty performance that ultimately came to nothing. The last minute goals, the questionable decisions. What an event. What a spectacle.

It’s also an opportunity to bond with my sons. They are far more knowledgable about football than I could ever be, and I appreciate their answers to my unending questions. I’ve even been tempted to play football in the garden with them although I quickly make my excuses when my lack of match fitness makes its presence felt.

One of the great things about the World Cup is the sheer humanity of it all. Players and fans from all over the world coming together to remind us that we are not all that different from each other. If anything, the differences are getting less and less each time the competition takes place. As a celebration of our shared aspirations and vulnerabilities, this occasion has no competitors.

Now that we are reaching the late stages of the competition, it’s dawning on me that this event is coming quickly to an end. Normality is about to resume. I still fancy the Netherlands to do it, but given the quality of the remaining teams, it’s a crap-shoot at this stage. I’m looking forward to the final, but not to the long silence that will follow it.

Croke Park

Some of you may know that Ireland has two unique field games – hurling and gaelic football. Both games have massive followings and they draw a fanatical attendance from all over the country during the summertime each year. The two games are by far the biggest sports in Ireland. The games are strictly amateur, and much of the attendance money gained has gone into developing the games and the sporting infrastructure around the island. The greatest achievement from decades of investment is a huge stadium in Dublin called Croke Park. It’s truly enormous. It’s the fourth largest stadium in Europe and it has a capacity of over 80,000.

For decades however, Croke Park has been strictly off-limits to the “foreign” games of rugby and soccer. No major international sporting event featuring these two games has ever happened there. The reason for this is wrapped up with the history of modern Ireland and the foundation of the Irish state.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, is the ruling body for hurling and gaelic football. They have always been passionately devoted to promoting all things Irish (particularly Catholic Irish), and this view was hardened during the the War of Independence when in 1920, British Auxiliaries opened fire on a crowd of supporters during a match in Croke Park, killing 13 people. For a long time afterwards, no foreign games were permitted in any GAA ground in the country including, of course, Croke Park*. What’s more, members of the GAA were not even allowed to attend any games of rugby, cricket or soccer. Even though this particular restriction was repealed in the 1970’s, the ban on the use of Croke Park for “foreign games” persisted into the 21st century. Although there has always been a lingering sense of anti-Britishness within the GAA, the prevailing view among supporters of the ban was that the other sporting organisations (i.e. the FAI and the IRFU) had done nothing to deserve access to it – that they were riding on the GAA’s coat-tails, in effect.

All this changed in 2005, after a very passionate and drawn out public debate. The GAA finally agreed to open Croke Park temporarily while Landsdowne Road, the home of rugby and football on Dublin’s south-side, was being refurbished.

Tomorrow, Croke Park hosts its first ever international rugby game – Ireland versus France. It’s a sell-out (and some GAA supporters think it’s a sell-out in another way too), with an attendance that will be more than double that of any home rugby international ever played in the country.

A week or so from now, Ireland will play England in Croke Park. The Union Jack will be hoisted there, and God Save the Queen will ring out from within the stadium grounds.

It’s a bit of history alright.

* with the exception of American Football, Athletics and Australian Rules. Go figure.

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