Tuesday 20 August 2019

Comment - Most deluded fans in the world? Well, if you don’t dream big you’re destined to remain small

Republic of Ireland supporters following the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Republic of Ireland supporters following the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 2nd leg match between Republic of Ireland and Denmark at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Mandy Johnston

“I’ve seen some of the greatest moments in Irish sport, but I know that the best is yet to come.” Brian O’Driscoll

“I’ve seen some of the greatest moments in Irish sport, but I know that the best is yet to come.” Brian O’Driscoll

Whatever, Brian! Let’s face it, folks, by now every committed Irish sports fan is totally OK with bitter and crushing disappointment. It’s what we sign up for. This week, however, the sporting gods seemed particularly vicious as they targeted poor little Ireland with malicious intent.

Our hopes and dreams for an involvement in not one, but two international competitions in two separate sporting disciplines were demolished with brutal and exacting cruelty.  

For many of us, those losses are merely emotional scars which in time will undoubtedly heal. However, for the FAI and the IRFU there are serious financial implications. In addition, the Irish Exchequer will lose out on any ancillary bonanza that might have stemmed from Ireland’s participation in either event.

It left me wondering are we a nation of well-meaning, eternally ambitious optimists? Or have we morphed into a bunch of moronic fanatics who refuse to accept reality for fear that it will diminish our enjoyment of the shamrock-strewn bandwagon. 

Football is big business. “Italy, this is the apocalypse” was the headline in ‘La Gazzetta dello Sport’ on Tuesday morning. An understandable reaction in a nation that considers football as part of their national DNA.

Economically speaking, it is estimated that a €1bn loss will be the net effect of Italy’s failure to reach the finals of the World Cup in Russia next year.

In cultural terms, this development would be as alien a concept to the Italians as a GAA fan waking up one morning to be told the Sam Maguire had been won by England.

We, on the other hand, lost the run of ourselves again. Since reaching the play-offs, we somehow confused the Irish team’s character with its capabilities and lapsed into a fugue state of delusion once again. We keep forgetting that we are not Italian, Brazilian, Spanish or English and that soccer is not in our cultural make-up.

To compound matters, we do not have any substantial structure that promotes or nurtures soccer talent from a young age through coaching and development. Our national league is underfunded by the FAI and under-supported by soccer fans.

And competing with the commanding presence of the GAA for young talent is no simple endeavour for the FAI. Ireland’s current approach to the scouting of international talent appears to languish on the hope that a talented player who will never make the England squad has an Irish granny somewhere.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was defiant in defeat and remained his usual philosophical self in the post-match analysis. “Ireland will not die wondering” – O’Neill’s deadpan response was perhaps befitting of his tactical creativity. Irish soccer fans won’t die wondering, but they may be wondering why they keep coming back for more of this torture. 

Statistically speaking, four loses in 24 games is no small achievement, given the quality of players that are available to this manager. Like his mentor Brian Clough, O’Neill takes no prisoners when it comes to defending his record in the media. His testy relationship with the fourth estate aside, he is still the best asset that the FAI has right now. Our fans’ expectations exceed our team’s ability and that is not Martin O’Neill’s fault.

With no competitive home international fixtures on the official calendar until 2019, the FAI now faces a nightmarish vacuum in its revenue streams. Prospects of an alternative competition bounce around.

The US Football Federation is looking into hosting pre-World Cup matches next year involving teams that failed to qualify for Russia, such as Ireland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Netherlands and the USA, according to reports. It offers some hope, but it is no compensation for not qualifying for the World Cup.

If being drubbed in soccer wasn’t enough of a salutary lesson in tempering our expectations, then our quest to host the Rugby World Cup was also routinely crushed.

Despite a technical report issued by World Rugby placing Ireland last in terms of suitability for hosting the 2023 World Cup, we continued to believe. In an impressive bid that cost more than €3.1m, we cared not one jot for pragmatic practicalities. Refusing to accept the reality staring us in the face, we nodded in agreement as Dick Spring told us it was all still to play for.

Not until our nearest neighbours Scotland and Wales failed to vote for us did the penny begin to drop. Shoulder to shoulder me arse.

Losing also means missing out on millions of euros in sponsorship and prize money and business.  Then there is the incalculable amount of free publicity, not to mention the opportunity it would have afforded us to market Ireland internationally.  

The IRFU has said under the current paradigm it will not apply to host a World Cup again because in the professional politics of sport the money odds will always be stacked against Ireland.

In hindsight, some now view the IRFU’s ambitions as wasteful folly. Predictable recriminations and calls for inquiries followed. Detractors fail to grasp this simple principle – in life you have to speculate to accumulate. 

Both of these defeats are but moments in time and will not prevent Ireland from doing it all over again. Nor should they. Because aiming beyond what all of the statistics say is possible is the only way that Ireland will ever excel internationally. 

And that is what sport is about, it is about faith in human endeavour. A notion of collective belonging and national pride. All the more beautiful if you are the underdog when victory is sweeter because you have beaten all the odds. There is nothing wrong with ambition, as long as it remains grounded in some reality.

Shakespeare said that it is “expectation” that is the root of all heartbreak. Irish fans may be broken-hearted now, but it’s still better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Irish Independent

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