Wednesday 18 September 2019

Sport has the potential to bring us together like nothing else in Irish life

Optimism: A young supporter watches Ireland qualify for the European Football Championships at the Aviva Stadium earlier this month
Optimism: A young supporter watches Ireland qualify for the European Football Championships at the Aviva Stadium earlier this month
Stephen Ward celebrates with Jon Walters at the end of the match that saw Ireland qualify for Euro 2016
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The European Football Championships in June present this country's biggest chance for a mass explosion of communal joy in 2016. There might be a general election coming up but it's unlikely that city streets will have to be closed because crowds have gathered to sing, "Ole, ole, ole, the Labour Party has gone away."

A budget may make more material difference to us than any football match but there's a good reason why the pubs won't be thronged with people biting their nails and leaping off their stools in joy as the finance minister announces the abolition of the Universal Social Charge. It's because sport touches parts other things can't reach.

Sport matters a great deal in this country. Every year the vast majority of RTE's top 10 programmes ratings wise are sporting events. This year a record-breaking 1.6 million people watched TV3's coverage of Ireland's Rugby World Cup match with France. Sport unites us like nothing else.

The gold standard remains Italia '90, the modern secular equivalent of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. A previous generation had John McCormack singing Panis Angelicus in the Phoenix Park, we had Packie Bonner saving a Romanian penalty in Genoa.

There hasn't been anything quite like it since. Even the 1994 World Cup final campaign didn't quite cut it, the celebrations seemed a bit forced, an attempt to artificially recreate something which had originally arisen spontaneously.

Then came the 2002 finals when, instead of unity, we just ended up with a national row.

In 1990 things had been economically and politically so dire, the performance of Jack Charlton's team had been welcome proof that being Irish didn't mean being second rate at everything. By 2002, on the other hand, we were so enormously pleased with ourselves that we seemed to feel the team had let us down by not winning the World Cup. Didn't they realise they were representing a nation of winners?

Four years ago we were back in the big time but three defeats in three games at the European finals seemed merely to deepen the mood of national self-loathing which took hold after the Celtic Tiger revealed itself to be no more substantial than those giant plastic green and white hammers fans used to take to the pub. Even the travelling supporters, once proudly hailed as the best in the world, came in for stick for continuing to cheer on the team when it was losing. Why couldn't they be miserable like the rest of us?

Things are different now. If we're not boasting about how great we are, neither are we wallowing in Matt Talbot-style abjection. Witness those Rugby World Cup viewing figures and the way the country took to its heart a game which has always been something of a minority interest. We are in the mood for celebration. Like the character in the James Joyce short story, our emotional barometer is set for a spell of riot.

How likely is it that there will be something to celebrate? Reasonably likely. This year there will be 24 teams in the finals, several of whom are below us on the world rankings list. Success for Ireland means making the knock-out stages. This will be less difficult than usual. There will be six groups of four. The top two will qualify from each of them and so will the four best third-placed teams.

A huge amount depends on the draw which takes place in Paris on December 12. If drawn with France, Italy and Sweden, for example, Ireland will be facing an uphill struggle. A group containing Portugal, Switzerland and Slovenia, on the other hand, and we're in business. Of course the top seed we really want to draw is England. If we do, no matter how many articles get written exhorting the population to show some 'maturity' and treat it as just another game, it will be the biggest international fixture for an Irish team since the two countries met in, there it is again, Italia '90.

The European Championships are not the only big international event of 2016. It is also an Olympic year and there will be a huge amount of viewers tuning in to see if Katie Taylor, undoubtedly the most popular individual sports star in the country, can win a second Olympic gold medal in August. The boxers carry our most realistic medal hopes in Rio and there is an added frisson to the fact that they will be doing so in the absence of Billy Walsh, who departed his post in that sport's own version of Saipan. To add another layer of intrigue, Walsh has taken over the US women's team and could even be in the corner opposing Taylor.

But it's the possibility of European Championship heroics which will dwarf everything else next summer. The Irish supporters have taken Martin O'Neill's team to their heart to an extent not seen since Jack Charlton's great years. We may be heading back to those glorious days when streets became empty and silent at kick-off time and happily riotous after the final whistle.

For three, or more if we're lucky, days in June the country will be united. They will be the most intense days of the year and they also have the potential to be the most joyful.

Never mind the election, if Ireland qualify for the last 16 in France it'll feel like we've all topped the poll.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss