Saturday 18 November 2017

When it comes to sporting truths, all is not as it seems

FACT OR FICTION: Do you think all that managers want is a bit of consistency? Or that rugby fans in Leinster are any different than Munster's?

Eamonn Sweeney

One of the less attractive features of living in Ireland is that from time to time we're enjoined to believe something which is patently untrue. Stuff like 'We all partied,' which seeks to lay the blame for the economic crisis not on the bankers, developers and politicians whose greed and incompetence caused it, but on everyone in the country. But I didn't party and neither did you, not in that sense anyway.

Nonetheless we've had to listen to that cliché being recycled ad nauseam over the last few years just like we've had to listen to people telling us that Love/Hate is as good as The Sopranos, that Hector ó hEochagáin is actually a real person rather than a nightmarish figment of the collective national imagination and that if Cillit Bang was any faster it'd get a speeding ticket.

It's the same in sport where there are a number of myths which are regularly presented as unimpeachable facts. So if you're tempted to repeat any of these in 2014, perhaps it's better to pause for a second and ask yourself if they're really true.

Myth: There should be a two-tier football championship to protect weaker counties from heavy defeats.

Fact: There are only about six counties who are superior to the others and five who are much weaker. The other 22 are much of a muchness. In 2012, Roscommon beat Armagh and Longford beat Derry but chances are the two-tier proponents would have put the losers in the top flight and the winners in the bottom one.

Myth: Roy Keane's competitive spirit was second to none while he was a player at Manchester United.

Fact: Keane was indeed a magnificent player. But was he any more ferocious a competitor than Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who enjoyed much longer careers and considerably more success with United than Keane? Giggs' 20-odd years of Premier League football prove that competitive spirit isn't all about aggression and snarling at people.

Myth: Ireland has a world-class rugby team.

Fact: We have won three games out of our last ten in the Six Nations. Last year Ireland lost to Scotland and Italy. The team hasn't won more than three games in the championship since 2009. Ireland has won five out of its last 30 meetings with the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa. Yet the delusion persists that the true worth of the team can be measured by the recent performance against the All Blacks when that was just as freakish as our defeat by Italy.

Myth: Dublin are poised to dominate the GAA.

Fact: Amazing how quickly this one has replaced the equally irritating, 'Dublin winning the All-Ireland would be good for the GAA'. Now that they've actually won a couple of All-Irelands we're told the Dubs will ride roughshod over all opposition because of their huge resources and awesome underage power. Last year Dublin didn't even win a Leinster championship at minor or under 21 level. Their under 21 footballers were beaten by Longford and their under 21 hurlers by Carlow. No need to press the panic button just because the Dubs have won two football titles by a point in three years. Tyrone and Kerry divided seven between them from 2003 to 2009 and no one suggested splitting those counties into separate bits.

Myth: The Premier League is the best in the world.

Fact: This favourite statement of British broadcasters when Fulham briefly draw level with Arsenal in the second half holds less water than a leaky sieve. In fairness, it probably was true six years ago. But after a season when the league couldn't even get a single team into the last eight of the Champions League, following on the single quarter-final representative in 2012, it's clear that the Premier is considerably weaker than La Liga. The idea that the English league possesses more strength in depth is even more fallacious. Only one of the last 13 Europa League winners has come from the Premier League while La Liga has accounted for five.

Myth: All managers want from referees is a bit of consistency.

Fact: Managers don't give two damns about consistency. What they want is for all borderline decisions to go their way. They'd have no problem with inconsistency if their team was benefiting from it.

Myth: Amateur sportsmen are morally superior to professional sportsmen.

Fact: Many youngsters from marginalised backgrounds have escaped and brought their families out of poverty because of professional sport. It's a bit much to look down on them because they didn't have the option of becoming schoolteachers and playing sport in their spare time. In any event many GAA players would like to be professionals if given the chance. The GAA's amateurism is a financial choice rather than a moral one.

Myth: Huge transfer fees in football are 'an obscenity' in these times.

Fact: You could also argue that the standard of living in the Western World is an obscenity considering the poverty endured by so many in the Third World. Why pick on football? A big transfer fee is a commercial decision made by a business organisation which can afford to make it. And in a world where the Irish government is paying out billions to bail out foreign investors in our banks, £85 million for Gareth Bale is chicken feed by comparison. What's more, Bale, like big money footballers everywhere, has done something to be worth that money and will have to keep proving himself week in, week out.

Myth: Alex Ferguson was a master of psychological warfare.

Fact: The best thing about Fergie's retirement is not having to hear some brain donor on Sky News saying that the man's latest bout of crankiness was 'mind games' directed at the manager of United's next opponents. No team ever lost because Ferguson said something mean about them on the Tuesday before the game. Getting a rise out of Kevin Keegan hardly qualifies you as the next Sigmund Freud.

Myth: Only foreign players dive and feign injury.

Fact: Ashley Young? Gareth Bale? Robbie Keane? Danny Welbeck? Players from these islands are just as adept as their continental counterparts at trying to cod the ref. Yet every European game between an English and a European team includes at least one UKIP-style rant from a pundit about the untrustworthy nature of the swarthy gentlemen playing for the latter. Despite the fact that the English side is usually made up of and managed by 'Continentals,' the same cynicism is judged to be miraculously absent from their game.

Myth: Hurling is the national game of Ireland.

Fact: If it was, you'd expect it to be played at a serious level by more than half the counties on the island. In reality, there are large swathes of the country where hurling's writ does not run. It is, like the Irish language and our traditional music, a wonderful thing which we pay lip service to but can't be bothered to promote in any meaningful way. Great for impressing the foreigners but something most of us never really got round to.

Myth: Leinster rugby fans are snobs, Munster rugby fans are the salt of the earth.

Fact: If you suffer a heart attack at a Munster game or suffer whiplash parking the car outside it, the likelihood of a doctor or solicitor being there to help you out is just as high as at a Leinster game. It's just the Munster professional is a bit cannier at pulling the man of the people routine. The difference between Brian O'Driscoll, doctor's son and Leinster icon, and Ronan O'Gara, university lecturer's son and Munster icon, is not immediately apparent to the naked eye. And yes I know John Hayes was a farmer. They've only been on about it forever.

Myth: Now that Lance Armstrong is gone, cycling is clean.

Fact: And if you go the end of that rainbow over there a little chap with a beard will be waiting with a pot of gold. The news that a rider from self-proclaimed paragons of the sport Team Sky has just failed a drug test sums up how unwise it is to pull that 'nothing to see here folks, time to move on' line when it comes to cycling.

Myth: Inter-county players deserve our sympathy for the sacrifices they make.

Fact: They deserve our respect for the work they put in. But no one makes them play for their county. If their work or family life are suffering as a result, they should quit the county team. Playing for your county, after all, is a privilege which many equally dedicated but less talented club players would love to do. It shouldn't be an excuse for putting on the poor mouth.

Myth: Americans are silly because they play sports no one else does.

Fact: The Yanks have four major leagues. One for basketball, the most widely played sport in the world after football. One for baseball, which has huge support in Japan, Korea and Central America. In terms of total numbers the Japanese baseball league is the second best-supported league in the world And one for ice hockey which has had six different world champions in the last 12 years compared to, let's say, rugby with its four World Cup winners in the past quarter century. American Football hasn't spread to the same extent but being the number one game in the world's third biggest country is probably enough to be going on with. The Canadian Football League gets bigger average crowds than Serie A. Anyway, isn't 'look at that crowd making a big fuss about games they don't play anywhere else' an odd argument for an Irishman to make?

Myth: Croke Park is the best stadium in the world.

Fact: Croke Park is a great stadium. For Ireland. But just because it's better than Páirc Uí Chaoimh and bigger than the Aviva doesn't mean the world should hold its breath. Fourteen US college football teams have bigger stadiums while the likes of Wembley, the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu aren't too shabby either. So that 'best stadium in the world' thing is just boasting basically. And the foreigners who agree are just being well-mannered because they know it means a lot to us.

Myth: A sportsman's private life is our business because he's a role model.

Fact: If you've got children, you should be their role model. Not Ashley Cole, Tiger Woods or whichever lad is next to get trapped underneath a blonde. And if you don't have children, what's with this role model stuff? After all, Tiger Woods is surely a fine example for a young single man.

Myth: Warren Gatland should have picked Brian O'Driscoll in the third Lions Test.

Fact: It was a borderline decision and Gatland was proved right by the result. That's how sport works, results are everything. What this argument really means is: 'Warren Gatland should have picked Brian O'Driscoll so we could all wallow in a sentimental finale to a great career'. But Gatland wasn't scripting a soap opera, he was picking a team.

Myth: Sports and politics shouldn't mix.

Fact: This used to get a lot of airtime when rugby teams went to South Africa. But the fact is that since Apartheid ended many white South Africans have said that the sporting boycott was the thing which really brought home their state's pariah status. Sport and politics are linked whether you like it or not. That's why the lack of concern shown by FIFA and top footballers about the deaths of exploited labourers in Qatar is the most horrible thing in sport today.

Myth: We should all show our maturity by supporting England in the World Cup.

Fact: A statement so obtuse as to make me doubt the maturity of anyone who comes out with it. Fans have always cheered against their team's rivals. By this reckoning Cork football fans should rejoice at the success of Kerry, Manchester City fans should cheer on Manchester United when their own side isn't playing and our Meath readers should join with me in raising a cheery glass to the success of the Dubs.

Myth: Hurling is the fastest field sport in the world.

Fact: No, it's not. Coursing is.

Myth: Ireland would have won the World Cup if Roy Keane wasn't sent home from Saipan.

Fact: Now you're just being daft. I think you've had enough for one day.

Irish Independent

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