11 June 2010

...and that's how I choose to remember it: A World Cup preview / case study

Out of Their Hands
― Title of RTE television's review of Ireland's World Cup qualifying tournament
A thing happened in Paris last November. It upset Irish people. You may remember.

There had been national splutterfests before. When it was suggested that Michelle Smith may not have stumbled upon her remarkable pre-Atlanta Olympics improvement simply by means of the coaching skills of her coincidentally banned-from-discus-throwing-for-taking-drugsdrugsdrugs husband, we formed a four-million-strong human shield to protect our innocent golden girl and her four medals from the jealous rantings of jealous loser jealous weepy jealous American jealous swimmers. (Two years and one whiskey-and-androstenedione test sample which shockingly contained traces of urine later, we said "Michelle who? Oh, you mean Michelle de Bruin".) Other times, the anger has been directed inwards: brother against brother, friend against friend, random drunken stranger against random drunken stranger. The Keane/McCarthy showdown in 2002 made similar civil wars — such as the Civil War — seem like little more than brutal conflicts whose effects on the very fabric of society could still be felt decades later. (See also: abortion, divorce, the EU, that kind of crap.)

This, however, was dynamically different. This time, we were indisputably in the right. This time, we weren't tearing each other apart or fighting from the back foot. We were on the attack. We had God on our side. This rage was a Rubicon moment for Ireland. No previous tournament elimination for the national team had provoked such a response. Your correspondent's stance on the import of this phenomenon to our land of rampant tea addiction and basically underwhelming weather patterns was ambivalent. One the one hand, it seemed a shame for us to surrender our exceptionalism on this matter: this type of thing happened in other countries. It happened in Spain in 2002; it happened in Italy in 2002, and they made up for their continuing absence from the Eurovision Song Contest by calling Scandoconspiracy in 2004 (that Giovanni Trapattoni was Italy's manager in both competitions is coincidental, though since Paris he has, more than once, invoked the name of a certain Sr. Moreno); the end of every tournament for England prompts an intoxicating mixture of neurotic introspection as people try to figure out why the fact that the game was invented there does not translate into trophies a century and a half later, and the identification of an enemy from without or within, an effigy of whom will be chucked on the giant bonfire on Guy Fawkes' Night in that nutcase village. When we get knocked out, it's a cause to head to the Phoenix Park and watch Duffer sheepishly try to address the cheery throng. Of course, it's silly to believe that we should be immune to these forces, but then everyone likes to think their pile of dirt is in some way special (let me tell you, you won't find a better hare duodenum and mango curd tartlet anywhere) and it's somewhat sad to see our no-claims bonus disappear.

On the other hand, here was a chance to experience this wonder in its raw, bloody state. I'd never driven into a tornado before.

Your wind joke here.

The immediate aftermath — the howling, the keening, the Facebook petitions, the march on the French embassy (there was a march on the French embassy!), the editorial promising revenge in the forthcoming France-Ireland Six Nations match (ie. a game in a different sport involving an entirely different set of players), the Minister for Justice of an actual nation state blathering on about injustice in a football match (maybe he thinks the Hand of God is blasphemous), the FAI's absurd quest for a replay or for a place as the 33rd team at the World Cup or for some other sacrificial offering (which wasn't even quixotic because Quixote believed in what he was doing and wasn't just a béal bocht chancer who got lost on his way to the county hall) — has been well documented. The really fabulous part of all this is how rapidly the episode has become fastened within the mythology of Irish football. And not just of Irish football either, but of the society as a whole, which is a testament to the rapid transformation of the national team from peripheral Ban-suppressed concern to (at least when success is a real prospect) key component of our self-identity, just like in those exotic lands of skilfulness and cups we'd seen on the telly. The intensity of feeling has, naturally, diminished since the heady initial rush, but the substance of the feeling has not. Our suffering and righteousness has solidified into scripture with nary a trace of wastage. The still image from that behind-the-goal-line TV camera of the diabolic moment has been reprinted so frequently, it's in danger of becoming our Zapruder film.

(If you're planning on having a drink for every superfluous mention of Thierry Henry during the World Cup, can I borrow a tenner?)

Even when the flame burns at this lower level, it requires a fierce amount of energy to maintain. Only so much of this energy can be supplied from within when it concerns such a small country as our own. Some countries are big enough and loud enough to sustain themselves with ire, but we needed outside validation. This wasn't hard to come by given the stature of the team's opponents and the offender in question; rarely is anything involving Ireland afforded so much international coverage. Luckily, if that's the word, Irish football is a satellite of English football, and English football's primary chroniclers are the artists formerly known as Fleet Street and their broadcast pals, who tackled the incident with customary brio. And why wouldn't they? It involved so many elements of their staple diet: Thierry Henry, one of Britain's foremost car salesmen of the last decade; a conspiracy theory; a Scandinavian ref (an exciting recent development in English football theatre); The French; Sepp Blatter (even though it didn't really involve Blatter at all); Michel Platini (who is triply evil: French, allied to Blatter, and the man English sportswriters warn their kids will snatch them away if they don't eat their dinner); heresy against the god Technology; the chance to remind us that they are the guardians of our moral purity; the chance to side with plucky underdogs Eire (sic); the chance to break out the Eau de Humanity reserved for the most special of occasions.

The handball, the referee's call and the subsequent (correct) refusal of FIFA to alter the result became co-opted into the peculiar strain of Eurosceptic paranoia that still exists in England, as surely in the sports pages as elsewhere. This paranoia is shared only residually here, but that was none of our concern: we were right, and we had the second opinion to confirm it.

The will needed to keep this death cult going is impressive. It entails a substantial feat of selective memory to turn justifiable grievance into an anger fetish. It entails characterising an entire tie — an entire tournament — by its most memorable moment, when it's really an accumulation of details. It entails a cardinal's belief in his own purity. It entails marching under the flag of eternal justice and forgetting the misdemeanours on one's own side (Shay Given's uncalled foul on Nicolas Anelka was far sneakier than Henry's handball — after all, who's ever talked about it?). It entails a sudden belief that we existed in a prelapsarian paradise until the sin was committed. Approached like this, the anger becomes detached from the event that caused it; it exists for its own sake, for the sheer thrill of frivolous martyrdom and for the sake of the void that its removal would leave. One can never know for certain, but all evidence points towards an absence of retrospective embarrassment in the future. This isn't something that can be relinquished just like that. It's the difference (with all due apologies to Eavan Boland) between history and the past. It's history that we crave more instinctively.

Sport is a passionate pursuit, and passion is immoderate. The World Cup wouldn't be the World Cup if this weren't so. From the very start, its greatness has come from the fact that it really matters, or that is at least always has the potential to matter. Victory isn't mere victory: it's triumph, it's glory. Just as success is taken to heart, so is failure; and if failure can be seen to have a face, all the better to make sense of it (never mind how sensible that sense is). It's said that deep down, the real reason people watch motor racing is because they want to see a crash. Half the fun of watching a World Cup match comes from the knowledge that it carries in it the germ for this sort of thing. It's the wondering whose spirits will be uplifted and whose lacerated that makes it exciting.

Of course, creepiness is a form of excitement, and this vexation can be deeply, fantastically creepy. Observing it is like being in a horror movie where the entire population bar you has undergone a mass personality shift at precisely the same moment. It's not so much the first flush of insanity that was so weird: it's the way that unreason has become calcified, the way the words HENRY and BASTARD now run through our core like we were seaside rock. It's the outrage unsweetened by even a hint of irony or self-awareness; it's the suspicion that people really, really believe what they say about it. It's disquieting to see your people wish they had a giant wicker man handy.

I don't speak here from the moral high ground. I am far from immune. For instance, there is barely a team in the English league against whom I don't bear a grudge for some real or perceived slight against Arsenal. One day, I will have my revenge on QPR for that 1990 FA Cup fourth round replay defeat. My Twitter feed is a welt on the face of the internet when the Arse are playing, a frightful cauldron full of bile and irrational hatred. I pretty much cursed Hull fans for having the temerity to turn up and breathe the same air as Nicklas Bendtner. I have a stable of high horses at my disposal. No: my outsiderdom on The Handball doubtless arose, in part, from a synaptic malfunction at the moment of the fateful meeting of hand and football. The seed just so happened to not take root. This is my fate. I must traverse the fields and the glens, the bogs and the islands, the semi-pedestrianised main streets and the mile-long tailbacks caused by the banjaxed toll gate, tending to the unburied dead while shivering and muttering George Pringle lyrics to myself, and waiting for my compatriots to descend the staircase too early next Christmas morn and find out who really leaves the presents under the tree.

That said, it's funny when it happens to other people. So enjoy the World Cup, folks! I certainly will! I've been the uncreated conscience of my race! You've been wonderful! G'night!



Permanent4 11/6/10 3:23 AM  

All this whinging over a filthy garrison game that was once considered a pox on your entire country? What kind of Irishman are you?

Anonymous,  11/6/10 4:04 PM  

maybe it was karma for the penalty they got against Georgia.

Fredorrarci 11/6/10 5:11 PM  

@Permanent4: Ah, how times have changed, thank God...

@Anon: No no no, don't be coming round this way with any of that karma shite...

Anonymous,  18/6/10 11:53 AM  

I loved seeing Henry playing for Arsenal, back before he got old etc etc.

But now for many Aussies he is now "Henry the cheat". And forever has a black mark against him.

But to take this one guy and label him as a cheat when so many other famous players have broken the rules and not been caught ... nobody says "Rivaldo the cheat" after he pretended he got hit in the face back in 2002 vs Turkey, or "Messi the cheat" after he punched the ball into the goal in a game for Barcelona ...


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