Fans revel in their double standards
Published 10/10/2011 | 05:00
WHEN Wayne Rooney returns to help England win their final group game of the European Championships next year and, consequently, give their nation the belief that they can end '46 years of hurt', it's going to be difficult for this part of the world to mock.
Usually, there's nothing we like better than seeing England build themselves up via pre-tournament friendlies to the point where they genuinely believe they are going to turn history upside down and win just the second international tournament of consequence that they have entered over the course of 80 years.
But the last few weeks should have taught us something about one swallow making a summer. Before the Rugby World Cup, many felt Ireland had one great game in them and, unfortunately, they were right because it came in the group stages against Australia rather than a potential quarter-final against South Africa.
Tomorrow night, the soccer team will be charged with lifting the mood of a nation still numb from both the early start and subsequent defeat of Saturday morning. They know, however, that if they don't, the reaction will not be so kind.
Since thousands started noticing rugby in this country -- coincidentally around the same time as Munster, Leinster and Ireland became quite good -- Irish footballers have been regularly subjected to ridiculous comparisons to the 15 men who answer Ireland's call.
That's not the fault of the rugby players but, no matter what the situation on the football field, to some it pales by comparison to what the rugby players can do. Fall to the ground without much contact? "You wouldn't want to see these soccer lads get a hit from Paul O'Connell."
Conserve energy by not running around like a headless chicken? "You'd never see the rugby players be that lazy and not care about the fans who've paid their hard-earned cash."
Fail to sing the national anthem with sufficient passion? "The footballers haven't got the same level of pride in the jersey."
On Saturday, Ireland had their best chance of making a World Cup final and they blew it with some basic errors that will haunt them for years.
Some felt the defeat against Wales came because the opponents 'wanted it more', one of those all-encompassing expressions used by those passing themselves off as experts. (Bohemians might really, really want to be beat Barcelona if they ever played, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen).
But judging by the reaction, it seems we're happy to go back to being a nation who goes to a World Cup, has a good time, makes new friends while watching a team that's a credit to the country and goes home before the engraver has even arrived with his tools.
There were players in all sports well before Roy Keane who abhorred this notion but, in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup, it seemed to have gained many more disciples.
It wasn't enough that Ireland had qualified from a group containing Holland and Portugal, and then made the knockout stages from one containing Germany and the best team in Africa at the time. No, said Celtic Tiger cubs, winning is all that matters and, despite losing on penalties in the last 16, it only took a couple of months for the knives to be sharpened sufficiently that they could fit snugly into the team's back.
That winning mentality has been so prevalent in the likes of O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll that despite the lack of criticism from the outside, they are unlikely to feel proud of merely reaching the quarter-finals.
Yet if Ireland's soccer players lose to Armenia, there won't be people lining up in front of television cameras to express how much effort those players have put in for their country over the years.
Not conceding a goal for the previous eight games won't save them, nor will ending up third in the group -- the position which, by seeding, they would be expected to finish. That will not be enough to save the Irish players from being portrayed as failures rather than -- like just about everybody who represents their country in any sport -- people who give their all for the shirt.
Nothing illustrates this like the respective captains, neither of whom might be seen in a major tournament again. Should O'Driscoll decide to retire, he will rightly be lauded for the contribution he has made to the sport that he's graced since before the turn of the century.
Yet, if he doesn't recover from injury and Ireland lose to Armenia, Robbie Keane would owe nobody anything if he decided that travelling eight hours over and back from LA for every game was too much of an effort.
When he eventually does call it quits, the career obituaries are unlikely to be so kind.