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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Cherish our funny foreign games

‘I suppose I hadn’t thought of kabaddi in 30-odd years until I chanced upon it while flicking through Sky the other night’ Photo: AFP/Getty
‘I suppose I hadn’t thought of kabaddi in 30-odd years until I chanced upon it while flicking through Sky the other night’ Photo: AFP/Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

In the 1980s my father developed a fondness for kabaddi. Initially he'd been skeptical, his first comment being, "Come here and watch this, there's a bunch of Indian lads playing catch on the television."

 But after a while, as Channel Four continued to show kabaddi, we became more and more interested in it. As sportsmen will, we found ourselves picking teams to root for, commenting on the strengths and the weaknesses of those involved and striving to appreciate the finer points of the game.

I suppose I hadn't thought of kabaddi in 30-odd years until I chanced upon it while flicking through Sky the other night, the sudden sight of it giving me such a pang of recognition I'd have rung my father straight away if he hadn't been dead these 13 years.

Kabaddi is a sport of Indian origin, contested between two teams of seven who take up position at opposite sides of a 10-metre long pitch. The teams take turns sending a player into opposition territory where he, or she, must tag a member of the other side and return to his own area without being caught. My father's observations on its affinities with catch were not entirely unfair.

On first sight an Irish observer might be tempted to dismiss kabaddi as not much of a game at all. But the thought occurs to me that as far as the casual Sky viewer is concerned, kabaddi, hurling and Gaelic football are all much of a muchness, funny foreign games it's not worth the bother to work out.

GAA people are inclined to think that if foreigners were exposed to our games they'd fall in love with them in the same way that we have. Yet the persistently dire viewing figures for the championships on Sky tell a very different story. Hurling and football don't travel the same way soccer and basketball have and they never will.

I'm convinced that hurling and football are great games but there may well be cultural reasons for this. I've been watching them since I was a kid, I played them when I was a kid and I've spent most of my life in places where Gaelic games are a central part of life. If I'd been reared in India who's to say I wouldn't feel the same way about kabaddi?

To be honest I'm pretty sure that I'm not getting the full benefit from kabaddi. This game which most of us will flick past without a second thought has a professional league which in its first season of operation, 2014, was watched by 435 million TV viewers (the mighty Indian Premier League in cricket had 560 million). This season the figures so far are up by 55 per cent and the final will have taken place last night in Delhi. The sport has a World Cup, won seven times out of seven by India, who however are getting increasingly tough competition from Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, where it's the national game, and New Zealand where it was introduced by immigrants from the sub-continent. Most people outside its native soil will never have heard of kabaddi but it's no joke all the same.

Gaelic football and hurling are, like kabaddi, immensely impressive on home turf but globally unknown. We tend to get a little annoyed about this. Hence the oft-repeated boast that hurling is 'the fastest field game in the world.' Fair enough, but if the title is so important, does anyone know what the second fastest field sport in the world is? Or the third? The fact is that, to borrow a phrase from my eldest daughter, the fastest field sport in the world "isn't a thing".

This yearning for outside validation also explains the excited reporting of tweets by the occasional Brit who happened to catch Gaelic games on Sky. This isn't a new phenomenon. I can remember the man presenting the trophy at, if I recall correctly, the 1999 Leinster football final leading off by telling us all that there were two Scottish journalists at the game and they'd thought it was great altogether. I cringed with pride so I did.

In reality the really impressive thing about the hurling and Gaelic football championships is that over a million Irish people watch and enjoy them every year, not that half a dozen lads on couches in the Home Counties think they're 'mental'.

There's no need to be defensive about the fact that Gaelic football and hurling haven't spread all over the world. This is about history rather than quality. The fact is that during the great initial boom era for team sports at the end of the 19th century, the British enjoyed enormous influence thanks to their policy of invading and subduing many parts of the world.

Cricket and rugby to this day are almost entirely confined to former British colonial possessions. And while soccer enjoys a global reach, it was brought to most of the globe by the Europeans, who held the whip hand at the time of its introduction.

Had Ireland been an imperial power, Lionel Messi might today be soloing through the world's defences. And if West Cork had its own empire, you might be reading about how Cristiano Ronaldo beat Neymar by a bowl of odds after lofting his last shot over the Prado.

The linguist Max Weinreich said that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." The same factors help a sport become a global one. Witness the worldwide popularity of basketball and its connection with the glamour, power and reach of American mass culture. That football and hurling, or indeed kabaddi, haven't spread in the same manner is no reflection on the games.

There are two wrong ways to react to the isolated status of our most popular games. One is to take the view that our games are great and everyone else's are crap. In other words to adopt the position that the rest of the world is deluded. This was a pretty popular stance in this country years ago; it led to The Ban and calls to mind the old saying that, 'A patriot loves his own country, a nationalist hates everyone else's'.

That mentality has largely died out. These days a more common pain in the ass is the guy who argues that Gaelic games are no good because they're not played anywhere else. You know the kind of dude, much use of the phrases, 'bog ball' and 'stick fighting', and a general air of always being about to apologise to an invisible Englishman. He lives in perpetual fear that the rest of us will let him down.

But someone who disrespects Gaelic football and hurling because they're not international is just as parochial as the person who dislikes rugby and soccer because they're foreign. He merely inhabits a slightly larger parish.

In reality we should be cheered by the continued appeal of Gaelic football, hurling, Australian rules, kabaddi and their ilk in a world rendered ever more homogenous by globalisation. And we should be chuffed that the American website TheSkinny365 named five times world handball champion Paul Brady in their top 15 athletes of all-time last week. OK, these lists don't mean very much but isn't it nice to see a hugely accomplished performer, who's spent most of a magnificent career under the radar, getting a bit of recognition? Who could complain about that?

Well, as TheSkinny365 revealed in an eloquent article entitled, 'The defense of Paul Brady against his own people', the poor unfortunates behind some Irish sporting podcast could, ringing up to complain about Brady's inclusion and pretending to confuse him with the singer of the same name. Oh my aching sides. The American handball player and fan at the site who'd lobbied for Brady's inclusion seemed both hurt and confused. He shouldn't worry about it. A hundred years on from 1916 there are still those convinced that if something is Irish it simply can't be the best.

The real sports fan should cherish all those obscure games which never make it to the Olympics but are nevertheless beloved on their home ground. Like pesapallo, a kind of Finnish variant on baseball which boasts the second best supported domestic league in that country. Or bandy, a cousin of ice hockey, whose Swedish league gets roughly the same attendances as the League of Ireland top flight and whose Russian one gets considerably more. Or indeed jai alai, the venerable Basque wall game, which its native fans describe as "the fastest game in the world." (Still not a thing though).

Confining your sporting diet to soccer is a bit like being one of those people who won't eat foreign food because, 'you wouldn't know what they put into it'. As St Augustine didn't actually say, though he usually gets credited with it, the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. So it goes with sport.

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