Tuesday 27 September 2016

Best losers ever - we prefer celebrating defeat rather than yearning for victory

Published 01/07/2016 | 02:30

Ireland fans cheer on the team at the Stade de Lyon Picture: PA
Ireland fans cheer on the team at the Stade de Lyon Picture: PA

What is about the Irish that we embrace defeat with such fervour? Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were knocked out of the European Championships before the quarter-finals, yet both returned to a hero's welcome in Dublin and Belfast.

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Did they deserve it?

As someone whose only sporting accomplishment is an under-21 club medal, I often look back and wonder was it a complete lack of ambition that made me into the unsuccessful footballer I was.

Of course, sport shouldn't be all about winning - especially at under-age or amateur level. Yet standing on the sideline at an under-10s rugby match or under-12s ladies Gaelic football game, you will see fathers and mothers roaring and shouting at their little darlings, the referee and the opposition.

So who says it's not about winning - even if most of these adults are trying to live vicariously through their children.

But professional sport is about winning, not the taking part. In the European Championships, only the Irish seem to embrace defeat rather than victory.

Of course, we did go out to France, unlike England who ignominiously lost to Iceland. But that is not the point, championship sport is about winning.

The English don't do defeat - this week it was a minnow, but no matter who they are playing they want to win, and win gloriously and by as big a margin as possible.

Our friends in France may have enjoyed our supporters and their amusing alcoholic antics, but they don't do defeat either.

My 14-year-old son was one of a small group of Irish fans in the 'Fan zone' at Place de la Concorde in Paris, and he told me it was not a pleasant experience. When Ireland were winning 1-0, they were booed and hissed by adults and teenagers and it continued right through the match, even when France went 2-1 up and dominated the game.

Had it been in Dublin, we would be sympathetic to the opposition - it's almost as if we don't want to win, so that others will like us better.

Maybe it is all part of our post-colonial past. As GK Chesterton said, "all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad". In our history, glorious defeat was plucked from the jaws of victory when St Ruth lost his head at the battle of Aughrim. And of course, Cromwell is vilified to this day because he didn't do defeat and he didn't spare those he defeated.

But back to the football.

The fact is that we struggle to get into competitions; we struggle even more when we do succeed in getting into the European Cup or the World Cup. Our style, while brave and dedicated, is not attractive to watch, and once we come up against a stylish side, we inevitably get dumped out of the competition.

The truth about the European Championships 2016 is that if Italy had put out their first team, they would have annihilated us.

Would we still have celebrated a gallant Irish team that drew with Sweden and lost 3-0 to Belgium and didn't qualify from their group?

Probably.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with celebrating defeat, it may even be endearing.

But is it setting future generations of footballers, athletes and sports people up for failure?

You could say that, as a country, there is certainly a lack of ambition, especially among soccer fans.

We have good players. Not great players, but good enough to earn a good living and play (mostly) in the English Premier League. Yet this national espousal of failure may in itself be limiting our ability to send out successful teams to international competition.

Look at the GAA. Kilkenny don't embrace failure on the hurling field, glorious or otherwise. Dublin or Kerry don't to it either. They find it devastating. Is that part of their success? It certainly seems to play a part in it.

Outside team sports, Aidan O'Brien and his backers don't do failure - he's only the master of Ballydoyle when his horses are winning Group 1 races in Ireland and England. A couple of year's drought or a succession of gallant seconds and thirds at Epsom and Ascot would raise serious questions, rather than unbridled celebrations.

Look at big business - Irish CEOs of big companies like Michael O'Leary or Paul Coulson only survive when they are making money for their shareholders. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that football is anything other than a big business.

Of course, we are a relatively small island and it would be invidious to compare us to Iceland, but isn't it time to grow up and reserve our celebrations for those who deserve it, winners, not losers?

Irish Independent

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