Monday 16 July 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Dedicated World Cup fans deserve days in sun

Belgium acknowledge supporters after yesterday’s win over Tunisia. When you see those fans who have travelled to Russia from all over the world it’s hard not to be swept away. Photo: Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images
Belgium acknowledge supporters after yesterday’s win over Tunisia. When you see those fans who have travelled to Russia from all over the world it’s hard not to be swept away. Photo: Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images

Hold the Back Page: Eamonn Sweeney

The World Cup is a magnificent machine for the global promotion of joy. It has its problems. There's the commercialism, the cynicism, the elongation. But when you see the fans who've travelled to support their teams in their own distinctive national manner, it's hard not to be swept away. Watching their anticipation, their elation, their trepidation and their jubilation can only make you feel exhilarated.

These supporters are only the tip of the iceberg. Back home, and in emigrant communities, in houses and bars and cafes and open-air venues, their fellow citizens are equally caught up in the drama. We know what it's like, this World Cup Fever. We know the lift it gives, the sense of unity it engenders, the emotional roller-coaster it propels. Now, imagine that multiplied by 32.

Some of us think Irish people experience the World Cup in a unique way because we somehow feel things more deeply than supporters from other countries. But there's no Irish monopoly on sporting passion. Their World Cup campaigns mean every bit as much to them as ours did to us. It is unlikely that they're going, "I wish we could be like the Irish, Muhammad/Gabriela/Wolfgang, truly they are the best supporters in the world."

Nothing is easier than being cynical about the World Cup (unless it's being cynical about the Olympics). The Man Who Sees Through Everything will decry the communal joy as counterfeit. But it's not. While it's happening, few things feel more real than sporting excitement.

That this feeling may be short-lived hardly matters. Don't the great Eastern spiritual traditions tell us to live in the moment? Not all World Cup moments are happy ones of course, but even the disappointments are vivid in a way few things in everyday life are. A recent look at my daughter's Junior Cert papers made me realise that almost all the mathematical, scientific and linguistic knowledge imparted to me at great length by the Irish educational system has disappeared into the ether. However, I can remember the details of almost every match played in the 1978 and 1982 finals.

The Man Who Sees Through Everything will point out that the big sporting jamborees are used to distract the plebs from their problems so the ruling elites can continue sticking it to us. But that's hardly true either, is it? I can remember being very happy when Ireland played well in the finals but I never recall thinking, 'We've scored. The government are great, they can do what they want from now on, politicians rule.' I suspect very few people think like this.

Plenty of those who voted and campaigned for social change in Ireland in the past few years also celebrated national sporting success with great gusto. The problem with The Man Who Sees Through Everything is that he always presumes he's brighter than everyone else.

Supporters do forget their troubles when a big match is going on. That's great because we can all do with a brief holiday from reality. At a time when one of the world's most powerful countries is putting children in prison camps and the ally of another is using chemical weapons on civilians, when there is terrorism and poverty and war, and on a personal level people have to face up to illness, to bereavement and a general worry about the state of things, sport offers an escape.

Sport's misdeeds are small things. Sergio Ramos's foul on Mohamed Salah adds not one whit to the sum total of evil in the world. Even our favourite bogeyman, the drug cheat, is a very minor offender. His offence is against fair play, a concept barely recognised outside the world of sport.

Supporting a team is an almost entirely benign and enriching activity. There are hooligans but they are a very small minority, even in England. For all the excitable headlines about possible mayhem, the over-riding impression of supporters at Russia 2018 seems to be of decent people having a great time. Watching them, it's easy to share their joy and sympathise with their disappointment.

That's a good thing because much of the evil in the world, the American policy of separating children from their parents at the border being one example, comes when we decide that those who are different from us are also lesser beings. This denial of our common humanity is at the root of the right-wing parties currently doing well in many parts of Europe.

The World Cup gives us a look at people from other countries and cultures engaged in one of the most common human activities. It shows that while they are different from us in some ways, they are very alike in others. The costumes and features may be different, but the expressions of sporting triumph and disappointment are the same as you might see at any GAA match this weekend.

It might be only a small reminder of what unites rather than divides us but it's a reminder all the same. I think it's an important one. An interest in the sport, or the music or the literature, of another country can only be good for us as human beings. It serves a useful corrective to the idea that there is only one proper culture and that, conveniently enough, it's the one you were reared in.

Maybe this all sounds a bit simple-minded, a bit United Colours of Benetton, a bit like that old 'I'd like to teach the world to sing' Coca-Cola ad. But those colourful hordes in the stands are not models or actors, they're real people who've shelled out their hard-earned cash and made the trek to Russia.

They're motivated by a form of nationalism but it's a different kind to the political variety which causes so much unhappiness. Think of how the 1990 finals reclaimed Irish nationalism from its association with the bomb and the bullet and pointed the way towards a more generous and less combative model. We're hardly the only country who've learned such lessons from sport.

In a way these early weeks of the tournament are my favourite. I could identify with the wins by Senegal, Japan, Mexico and Nigeria. For underdog countries, like Ireland, the group stages contain three cup finals. When we defeated Italy in the first game in 1994 it ranked as one of our great national sporting moments.

The Italians, on the other hand, wouldn't have worried too much about the match. They'd have remembered not winning a group game in 1982 and still winning the tournament. The big nations take a long-term view of the finals. Germany will recall losing their opening game to Algeria in 1982 and still reaching the decider, losing to East Germany in 1974 and winning it all in the end. Argentina in 1978 and Spain in 2010 lost a game early on but recovered to become champions.

Countries like that can play themselves in to an extent, but the minnows must go for broke. They cannot plan beyond three games because three games may be all they have. Saudi Arabia played 18 games to qualify for Russia and were effectively eliminated after two finals matches. Peru played 20. For countries like Japan, who beat a Colombia side 31 places ahead of them in the world rankings, or Senegal, rated 26 below the Poland team they defeated, to be going into the last group game with qualification still possible ranks as an achievement in itself.

It always seems slightly odd to hear Irish pundits coming up with the line about there being too many teams in the tournament. Had the tournament not been expanded from the original 16 teams we would have never qualified for it. What a deprivation that would have been. This complaint, and the one about there being too many teams from odd parts of the world when X or Y European team didn't qualify, seem like English arguments being unthinkingly parroted on this side of the pond. They're sporting equivalents of hackneyed laments about 'Political Correctness gone mad' and traditional powers no longer ruling the roost. There's a kind of imperial nostalgia there.

The more the merrier I say. From the Peruvian lad who could only afford a flight as far as Madrid and got to Russia by getting lifts across Europe and talking his way on to a boat from Finland, to the Japanese and Senegalese fans who stayed on after the game to tidy up their section of the stadium, to the Mexicans in the wrestling masks, the Egyptians with the pharaoh headgear, the Icelanders in the Viking helmets, the 73,000 Brazilians, the 65,000 Colombians and the Iranian women who flocked into the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch a screening of the match against Spain on Wednesday after years of being forbidden to attend such events. In the past some of those women have risked arrest by attending football matches dressed as men. People do not do this for a trivial thing. All over the world, football matters to us.

If so far it has been the tournament of Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Harry Kane, it also belongs to those fans. On the field, the cream will eventually rise to the top. But right now we should celebrate, in the words of Louis MacNeice, "The drunkenness of things being various."

Bless them all.

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