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Football show's a game of two halves

GREEN IS THE COLOUR (RTE2): The writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus said that everything he knew about morality and personal duty he'd learned from football. But then Camus wasn't your average chin-stroking deep thinker; he'd been a goalkeeper in his youth.

Kicking off with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch in 1992, there's been a flood of truly great books about the beautiful game over the last 20 years. Truly great football documentaries, on the other hand, have been noticeably thin on the ground. Whenever football rears its head outside the normal television coverage, it's usually in current affairs programmes about dodgy agents and bungs.

It's too early to say if Green is the Colour, RTE's ambitious social, political and sporting history of the game in Ireland, based on a book by former Irish Times football correspondent Peter Byrne, will turn out to be truly great. This was just the first of four episodes, which in terms of a football match means it's only midway through the first half. But it's certainly exhaustively researched and stylishly put together, with a wealth of fascinating archive footage.

The first thing you noticed about Green is the Colour was the complete absence, aside from in the opening minutes giving a taster of what's to come, of actual footballers or football managers. The talking heads here were all academics of various stripes.

The second thing you noticed was how most of them -- as well as the otherwise excellent presenter Darragh Maloney -- used the dread word "soccer" instead of football.

Sorry, but when we were kids, slicing a scuffed Wembley-brand vinyl ball ( around the concrete pitches of inner-city Dublin, we never called it soccer. It was --and always will be -- football. As for that game they played in grassy places to be found at the end of the rocky roads out of Dublin, that was either Gaelic football or "Gaah".

This minor irritant aside, Green is the Colour opened with an absorbing and detail-packed look at the origins of the game, and the gradual spread of its popularity here. "Folk football" had been around in various forms for some 4,000 years, but it took the Victorians from England's top public schools to impose a set of rules which still form the spine of the game today.

In 1878, a Belfast man called John McElery saw his first football match while on honeymoon in Scotland and fell in love with the sport. Determined to import football to Ireland, McElery arranged an exhibition match between Scottish teams Caledonians and Queen's Park.

Two years later, the Irish Football Association (IFA) was set up in Belfast. Two years after that, Ireland played their first match against England -- and lost 13-0.

The early football pioneers were all Protestant gentlemen and for decades Belfast remained the powerbase of Irish football. But as the game gradually spread out from the garrison towns (a team of British soldiers won the very first IFA Cup), its popularity mushroomed in Dublin, which soon boasted more football clubs than Belfast, and the Football Association of Ireland struck out on its own.

Green is the Colour was, in football pundit terminology, very much a game of two halves. The second part of the programme became rather bogged down in the ongoing tussle for supremacy between the fledgling FAI, which in terms of clubs and numbers was the bigger organisation, and the IFA, which still held the reins of power, as well as the right to use the name Ireland.

The turning point came when the FAI won recognition from FIFA. The Free State national team played their first proper international against Italy in 1921 (they lost 3-0) and reached the quarter-finals of the 1924 Olympic Games.

Some of this material could have done with a little pruning, to be honest, since it became something of a blizzard of facts and figures, and rather too much time was devoted to the ever-malign influence of the GAA. But there's a lot of time on the clock yet.


Green is the Colour 3/5