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Professionalism doesn't have to spell the end of Gaelic world

In the ten days since word of the new deal filtered down to the natives, we've had rumours of unrest in the undergrowth, distant tremors that may yet become shockwaves as they rumble towards the surface.

The unread peasants, in thrall to their beliefs and superstitions, fear that the mythical beast they call professionalism has been prodded and goaded onto his feet after a century of slumber. And now that he has been awoken, we are all in mortal danger.

In the north, there is a long tradition of itinerant preachers announcing imminent doom on their home-made placards, that the end of the world is nigh -- perhaps even before you've had time to finish your Ulster fry.

And last week again, while the rest of the country was getting on with its wanton decadence, the few remaining incorruptibles were raining down hell and damnation upon the money changers in the temple known as Croke Park. By sanctioning Government money for county players, warned one such protestor, a Mark Conway from Tyrone, the GAA was about to take "the first, irrevocable step on the road to destruction." Verily, abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

But, as the saying goes, just because I'm paranoid it doesn't mean they're not out to get me. And just because the likes of Mr Conway see apocalypse now where most people just see an annual stipend, it doesn't mean his arguments are unfounded.

In his article in last Wednesday's Irish Independent, Conway went straight to the heart of the matter. The GAA is first and foremost "about place," he argued, and if players start getting paid then "place as a GAA driver will be gone." In other words, they will abandon their native clubs and counties at the drop of a bigger cheque elsewhere.

This is the core fear. The arrival of mercenary professionalism will damage the formidable foundation upon which the entire organisation is built: community cohesion, social solidarity, communal loyalty to one's roots.

Personally, I don't believe this argument is proven. Professional sport is over 100 years old and has if anything got stronger as societies have become richer. Not just that, but it has thrived as societies have become more urbanised and, according to the sociologists, more fragmented and impersonal. The perceived death of community in modern society has not led to the death of sport. Sport, arguably, is the one mass-media entity that can still bring people together, that can still make neighbourhoods out of atomised communities.

In America, the home of full-on capitalist, corporatised sport, the big baseball, basketball and gridiron clubs still enjoy enormously loyal fan bases. And you need only look at how the achievements of the Boston Red Sox in winning the World Series in 2004 -- and again this year -- united an entire city. It didn't matter that some of their principle stars weren't from America, let alone Boston.

Likewise when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005. That side had a couple of homegrown heroes but most of it was an international pick 'n' mix of players with no roots in the city and no knowledge of the club's grand tradition before they fetched up there on lucrative contracts. And it didn't matter.

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Maybe it did matter at one time: when Liverpool were winning European Cups in the late 1970s, virtually all their players were British or Irish. When Celtic won it in 1967 all their players, famously, hailed from Glasgow and its hinterland.

But when Celtic played in the 2003 Uefa Cup final, the team was made up of Swedes, Scots, English, Irish, a Bulgarian, a Belgian, a Dane, a West African and a player from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. And some 50,000 Celtic supporters turned up in Seville for the final.

Even clubs as tribal as Celtic and Rangers have survived the transition to a globalised marketplace with their respective support bases as fiercely loyal as ever. So can the GAA withstand the tectonic shock of a fella from Cavan, say, moving to Laois for a better offer? We merely ask.

But when Mick O'Dwyer managed to turn a commuter county like Kildare, full of housing estates where next-door neighbours were strangers, into one united community during the glory days of the late 1990s, no Lilywhite supporter seemed to have a problem with one member of the team being from Kerry, and another from Tipperary.

The issue of pay-for-play runs deep, for sure. But another issue has remained even deeper underground, its absence from the agenda for over 120 years a tribute to the remarkable consensus the GAA has managed to build in that time. It is this: a player, no matter how talented, can only play for the county of his birth unless he has a very good reason.

There is a fundamental injustice here: a player is enslaved by his roots. If he happens to be born in a struggling county, there he must remain, no matter how good he is. He cannot expect to win All-Irelands, he cannot even aspire to become the best he can be, to take his talent to the highest level in the game.

In the GAA, for its own unique reasons, the cream does not always rise to the top. But it raises a fundamental, perhaps philosophical, debate: the right of the individual versus the greater good of the community.

No one has the solutions right now, but the debate -- unlike the end of the world, we hope -- is nigh.


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