03 April 2009

Gio knows

Forgive me for the egregious use of the first person when talking about the national team — can't be helped, sometimes...Thoughts on Ireland worth checking out from the Okey Doke Football Blog and Jump the Fence, Baby. Here are mine.

I was going to begin by noting how odd the national relationship with the Ireland team is, but on reflection, it's probably not that exceptional at all. Two aspects of international football give it a quality distinct from that of the club game: nationalism (used here in a general, not-necessarily-pejorative sense) and the scarcity of fixtures. European qualifying tournaments usually give each team between eight and fourteen games, spread over a year and a bit. So much more, therefore, rides on an average qualifier than on a domestic league game. The particular intensity that this lends to such games may often be absent for larger countries whose qualification is more or less guaranteed, but it's there for most of us; and every aspect of the matches appears far more significant than it otherwise would. Ireland, having usually been there or thereabouts for a couple of generations, are a fine example of this.

There are a few other elements which go into the mix here, such as the strange sense of entitlement many people seem to feel about the team. Several things feed into this. The Charlton era left us first giddy, then grouchy when things didn't go our way as often as they did during that golden age. Most Irish fans experience their football as a Sky production; some, such as the small but heard group who booed the team at the final whistle of the Bulgaria game, seem unable to see what is in front of them as the imperfect reality it is. (As Jump the Fence noted, "it's not X-Factor you're watching".)

Perhaps there is some residue from the chimeric Celtic Tiger bluster which filled our sails not so long ago; more precisely, from the invocation of the national miracle in the aftermath of the Saipan affair* by the type of people who believe we would have won the World Cup if not for Mick McCarthy.

Furthermore — at the grave risk of appearing to enter into some gratuitous meeja-bashing — the coverage of the team's exploits has become ever more tabloidesque, and not just amongst our, ahem, beloved redtops. That is, it's bipolar: the highs are very high, the lows impossibly low. Every slight is a catastrophe that demands an immediate sacrifice. Impatience is the drug, whose dose was increased in 2002. Add to that a national broadcaster as dominant in determining the national sporting discourse as the rest of the news agenda, and who continue to employ a certain demagogic ex-Millwall player who many people actually take seriously, and you have a nice little mudpit for irrationality to wallow in.

Of course, this isn't all-pervasive; thankfully, there is enough reasonable talk to keep things sane (things haven't got as bad as the steaming pile of nonsense that gets written about England). But it's there, and it's inevitable.

The beauty part of Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure is that he bypasses all of this. So far, he has appeared not to care about the circus. However eager the media is to play up his supposed eccentricities, he has been the most normal of the lot of us. By assessing the available talent, devising a plan and sticking to it — in other words, by going about his managerial business as any good manager would — he's been damn near subversive. While some decisions have been questionable in isolation (PaulMcShanePaulMcShanePaulMcShane), Trapattoni isn't from the mould of the previous unfortunate holder of the office, who made us unsure as to whether he wasn't just making it up as he went along.

The truth is, despite the risible claims of some, Ireland are not a world-class team, or favourites to win the group. We have qualified for four finals tournaments in seventy-five years. More talented Ireland teams than this one have failed. This very team failed dismally in the last campaign. That four games remain and we're still in contention is itself a small victory. If we fail to qualify, it may well be because of a calamitous error by Trapattoni (it hasn't happened yet, though). More likely, it would be because sometimes these things happen. We're not owed a place at the World Cup. We've always had to fight for every goal and every point. It seems to me that's exactly what we're doing right now. Let's see where it gets us.

*Is anyone else depressed and a tad embarrassed that the word "Saipan" now calls to mind not one of the bloodiest battles of World War II but a spat between a footballer and his manager?


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