The strange — and not-so-strange — case of Stephen Ireland. Part one of two. Part two here.
The makers of the otherwise fine RTE television programme Scannal occasionally play fast and loose with the definition of the show's title. The first edition of the new run (available for those in Ireland to view here until December 14) told the story of the "Grannygate" episode and Stephen Ireland's subsequent absence from the Irish national football team — hardly a "scandal" to sit alongside subjects of previous series, such as the death of Ann Lovett and the original GUBU affair.
Indeed, the show was slight, struggling to fill with substance its allotted twenty-five minutes. It was therefore an uncanny reflection. As the programme's accompanying bumph noted, Ireland has been the most discussed Irish footballer of the past two years. It could be said that the story came to some sort of resolution in August with the player declaring his international retirement in an interview with the Sunday Times. In truth, it effectively ended when it began; it barely moved subsequently. The talk on it has been little but idle post-Mass chatter.
It was still something, I suppose — enough for Ireland's retirement to generate a kind of catharsis for some. David Kelly of the Irish Independent, for instance, on September 5th — the day of the Cyprus-Ireland match, and six days after the publication of the Stephen Ireland interview — was sufficiently provoked to tear into the player. His piece was titled "Good Riddance", and it's fair to say that it reflected the views of a good proportion of Irish fans.
Kelly coins a new moniker for Stephen Ireland: Egoman. The thinking behind this is, it seems, threefold: firstly, to eliminate any confusion between the player's surname and country of origin; secondly, to demonstrate that Kelly once saw the Algonquin from a taxi window; thirdly, to sum up the player's egregiousness, as Kelly sees it:
For it is an image that perfectly captures a professional enveloped so certainly within the glow of a secure, lucrative new contract at a club where accumulated wealth has corroded the value systems of so many.So many, / I had not thought secure, lucrative contracts had undone so many...
Have they, though? Damien Duff was, after all, one of Roman's first wave at Chelsea, and Lord alone knows how much Newcastle United were paying him, yet we unquestioningly regard him as a decent, upstanding sort. The thought of the sum of Robbie Keane's signing-on fees makes one wince; and let's not forget that while he was being all heroic and cartwheely in Ibaraki, he was drawing a salary of invisible money from Happy Pete's Dream Factory during the "If It Bleeds, It's Leeds" era. Roy Keane moved to what would soon become the world's richest club for an English record fee, and dressed as a leprechaun to hawk substandard crisps, yet there are still many in Ireland who would gladly do anything — anything — for him, if you catch my meaning.
(Of course, there are also those who still fantasise about ambushing him at Béal na mBláth. Both types are to be pitied and shunned.)
We need not even look so far for contrary argument. Kelly's article appears on page 19 of the Indo's sports section for that day. On pages 16 and 17, there
is a piece proclaiming happiness that Shay Given has finally been given the chance to win the medals that his stellar talent arguably deserves. He has been given this chance, let us remind ourselves, by moving to "a club where accumulated wealth has corroded the value systems of so many". The latter article, by the way, was written by David Kelly.
One of the contributors to Scannal, Alan Titley, makes a similar point to Kelly:
I think it may signify a change in attitude, in that from now on, players won't be so interested in playing for their country. That is to say that club loyalty is more important to them — in other words money — than any loyalty they have to the country.It would be strange indeed if the inflation of the soccer bubble had not altered in some way the relationship between a player, his employer and his national team. Early international retirement certainly appears to be more common than it used to be, though in the absence of hard data, I can at best say that this is the perception. (Some historical notables quit their national team at their peaks: Gerd Müller, for example, and Johan Cruijff.)
We should be cautious here. It's tempting, when contemplating almost any matter in football these days, to roll one's eyes, tut and say "Money!" to no-one in particular. If we're not careful, it will soon become a rhetorical fallacy: reductio ad pecuniam, if you will. Other factors must surely be applicable too. Two oft-cited international opter-outers, Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher, are also linked by the fact that they have remained at their respective clubs for their entire careers. Stephen Ireland may not have been at Manchester City for as long at the former pair have been at their clubs, nor is City his local club. But he has been at City since he was fifteen years old — eight years now. It's not that money can play no part in the decisions these players make, but let's give them some credit at least. If you spend long enough at one club, you might develop some kind of bond with them, a bond that might — just might — be even stronger than the simple exchange of money for services rendered.
One of the reasons for the impact of the Stephen Ireland case is that it strikes at the heart of the myth of international football; indeed, of international sport. We routinely make use of nationalistic, even militaristic, language when talking about the international game: players get called up for international duty; they play for their country, and there is no greater honour. Dulce et decorum est pro patria ludere and all that. Flags are faced, anthems sung, heads of state met, ancient grudges whetted.
The dirty little secret of international football is exactly how metaphorical all this is, how far it can be from the reality. When we used to sing that we were all part of Jackie's army, it wasn't meant to be taken literally. This is not some state position for which the holders must visit the Áras to receive their seals of office from the Prez (or equivalents thereof). This is the representative team of the national association. It is not the nation.*
Actually, this should be qualified somewhat. Of course, there is a link between identity with a nation and identity with a national team. This team is called the Republic of Ireland, after all, not the FAI Select XI; that in itself is an appropriation of something larger than sport. Titley makes the point that, "in the world we live in, where any kind of nationalism or identity is weakening in every way, the national team allows them to express their identity for that ninety minutes. And often people who would loathe everything to do with Ireland suddenly find that something else is stirred in them". And we can all think of occasions where the success or failure of a national team has transcended the mere palmarès: France's World Cup win in 1998, Brazil's mournful defeat in 1950, other countries having their history while Uruguay has its &c.
But this does not take away from the fact that this is a sports team. For the players, it may have all of the connotations it has for those of us on the outside (and we are on the outside). It may stir all of those feelings of attachment to the superset, as represented by the team name and the colours and the flags; or it may not. A national team has a head-start when it come to coherence, built as it is around a pre-existing identity, be it native or second-hand. But ultimately, it is a workplace. It's still a group of individuals, all with their own stories, all with their own motivations and mentalities, who have to figure out some way of operating together. It is dangerous to ascribe to this setup notions of patriotism, because when someone decides that it is not for them — as they are perfectly entitled to do — this would be treachery. There comes a point where sentimentality must stop and reality begin.
This is the absurd position Stephen Ireland has found himself in in the eyes of some: that to decline to play for the national team is a betrayal, a betrayal of the nation, in its way. This attitude lacks the understanding that how we see it is not necessarily the same as how it is. It's also an unwitting confirmation of the separation of team and state. That Stephen Ireland is dead to a lot of Irish fans is not a patriotic notion. It's about what he can do for us as opposed to what he can do as one of us (which he still is, by the way). It's all about how useful he can be, not what he is. It's a cold and unaffectionate way to see football — though, I suppose, not one that deviates too radically from the norm.
* For the record, I'm not one of your "oh, it's the Interlull, what a crashing bore, boo-flippin'-hoo" types. I love international football. Here's Exhibit A.