Sport Soccer

Friday 26 May 2017

Colonial present has become weight around the neck of Irish football

In a sense, the soccer industry here remains a colony of England, open to all the infections that hamper it there Photo: Stock picture
In a sense, the soccer industry here remains a colony of England, open to all the infections that hamper it there Photo: Stock picture

Tommy Conlon

It is the great question that keeps recurring in these parts through time and tide, pondered by the towering philosophers of every age from John Donne to Joe Dolan.

And just when we think it has receded back into the mists, along comes Brexit to place it centre stage once more. Are we, to quote Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, islands in the stream? Or was Mr Donne right when he wrote, back in 1623, that "No man is an island, entire of itself"?

Joe, on the other hand, having seemingly sampled all the cosmopolitan pleasures, took stock and decided to settle for a more insular way of life. "Take me and break me and close all your windows and doors," the Mullingar majordomo famously pleaded. "Shut me off, cut me off, make me an island, I'm yours."

We were all taught in school how history played a big role in our present day affairs. We maybe didn't quite realise that geography played its part too, despite this fact staring us in the face.

As in society, so in sport. In Olympic sports, in international soccer, we always seemed to be lagging behind Europe. Likewise our neighbours in Britain, aka the mainland, which turned out not to be so main after all either. The analysis of the problem rarely pointed out the obvious: that it might have something to do with our island circumstance.

The football writer Simon Kuper and the economist Stefan Szymanski identified it as a major issue in their seminal 2009 book Why England Lose. Their argument is located in what they call "theories of networks".

Networks of knowledge are a key engine in economic growth. "As it happens," they write, "networks also help explain why some countries have done better at football than England. English football's biggest problem was probably geography. The country was too far from the networks of continental western Europe, where the best football was played."

English football had ridden on the coat-tails of Empire for a half-century and more. It was the global game's dominant culture until WWII. The decline began thereafter, they say, notwithstanding the glory of '66. Then came the "abject failures" of the 1970s and the long frustration since as the balance of power shifted to western Europe.

"Western Europe excels at football for the same fundamental reason why it had the Scientific Revolution and was for centuries the world's richest region . . . From the (2006) World Cup in Germany, you could have flown in two-and-a-half hours to about 20 countries containing about 300 million people. That is the densest network on earth . . . For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast . . . The proximity of many thinkers created an intellectual ferment. That is why so many of the great scientific discoveries were made there . . . Centuries later, football spread the same way."

In 1957, the EEC, the common market, was born. In 1955, UEFA established the European Cup. Nowadays the EU and Champions League are in each case massively expanded versions of the original vision. "The Champions League," write Kuper and Szymanski, "is the European single market come to life, a dense network of talent. With the world's best footballers and coaches packed together, the world's best football is constantly being refined here."

In this evolving geopolitical landscape, English football lost contact with the networks of knowledge. The English FA had originally and infamously opposed the involvement of their clubs in the European Cup. "Gradually isolation becomes your mindset: after a while you don't even want to adopt foreign ideas anymore," say the authors.

And now, of course, the UK has begun the process of leaving the European Union. So perhaps it was Brexit that was troubling Gareth Southgate when he challenged this insular mentality last week. As the new England football manager, Southgate's comments were a state-of-the-nation critique of the game in his homeland.

"I always say being an island saved us in 1945," he told the British press, "I'm not so sure it's helped us ever since. I think we've got to broaden the horizons because the lads see one league (the Premier League), they see Sky Sports News, they think we're the centre of the earth and we're not. We've got to think differently, work differently, work smarter. We have to get off the island and learn from elsewhere."

For England read Ireland, with knobs on. We are the island off the island, further detached from continental networks, and puny by comparison to England's economic and demographic power. On top of that, we're a post-colonial island, with its attendant confusions and insecurities.

And in a sense, the soccer industry here remains a colony of England, open to all the infections that hamper it there. The game in Ireland is similarly inward-looking, slow to change and resistant to innovative thinking. The technical and tactical teaching is still backward. Our best exports are not even competing at the top level any more.

And even if there is an awareness that standards have to improve, there is seemingly no coherent and comprehensive strategy to improve them.

John Donne never sent them home sweating from a dancehall in Tullamore. But he did write: "Every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main."

And for some damn reason they seem to be able to pass the ball better over there.

thecouch@independent.ie

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