Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reclaiming the game

Pic by Pizzapie

This morning I listened to a conversation in work between two very loquacious groups of colleagues. It was in essence the same conversation that has taken place every morning since time began and went something along the lines of “Liverpool are muck, United are great, Liverpool are great, United are muck, hurray, boo, hurray, boo.”
Among the Wildean repartee, there was, as usual, the tendency to refer to the football club of their choice in the first person plural. “We’ll stuff you when we meet you next.” “We need to sign a striker.” “We are the greatest.” Call me a cynic, but I doubted very much whether the persons uttering these claims have obtained the necessary permission from their respective clubs to speak on their behalf. However I decided not to intercede.
Of course, the ‘we’ is indicative of feeling a part of this entity called a football club. They are the supporters, the faithful, from the day they are born until the day they die. Blue and true, or red and true or pink and true or whatever. True football supporters one and all.
The only problem with this little scenario is that football is a sport played in three dimensions. Nay, I jest not. In the real world, football consists of real people, the smell of deep heat, humorous crowd chants and a need to take evasive action when the left black decides to boot the ball out of play in your direction.
The other sport, about which the workplace arguments revolve, is a sort of virtual football called The Premiership. It is a soap opera for (mainly) men, featuring a cast of thousands from around the globe, all earning the kind of money that Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox could only dream of.
In a sort of “Who’s your favourite Desperate Housewife” kind of way, the very young are peer pressured into deciding which Premiership team they will buy into for the rest of their lives. Then they are encouraged to purchase the shirt and buy the Sky package and follow their team in the print media and the two-dimensional screen whenever it might appear.
This is actually not very different from what real football used to be like. There would be peer pressure also from a young age to go and follow the local team and buy the shirt and follow the team in the print media and the three dimensional arena whenever it might appear.
Of course, with the meteoric rise of the Premiership, there has been a corresponding decline in interest in real football. This has happened globally and now kids from Vietnam to Venezuela play in the streets in their Manchester United shirts, while down the road Ho Chi Min City and Caracas Casuals play to half-empty stadia.
Whenever I mention the subject of League of Ireland football, I am informed that it is rubbish, or words to that effect. To back this up, they tell me that they went to a match once and it was dire. When I point out that they have just been lamenting how awful their team was on the box last night, I am regarded with pity. I am often asked which Premiership team I follow, which is akin to asking me for my favourite member of the Royal Family.
By claiming that they don’t follow League of Ireland football because its rubbish, Premiership fans – and we are really talking Big Four here – are really admitting that they only follow a team because they win trophies. Why else are Celtic so popular and Hibs, who are much older and just as Irish, ignored? Why don’t they follow Middlesborough or Aston Villa in such numbers? Dublin fans will never win anything, yet they don’t all go off and support Kerry.
Shels will never win the European Cup and even the League of Ireland looks out of bounds for the foreseeable future. Yet I am convinced that winning our first League title for thirty years in 1993 and beating Hajduk Split at Tolka in 2004 gave me far more pleasure than United fans here had on winning their 800th trophy last year.
It is estimated that by 2012, half the world will be of Chinese extraction and 47% of the global population will claim to support one of the Big Four in the Premiership. In England there is a campaign called Reclaim the Game, which aims to promote real football with mud and crowds but they are small and pitted against Murdoch’s billions.
This season Sporting Fingal joined the League of Ireland. They play in Morton Stadium, Santry and unfortunately are doing rather well in their first season. I say unfortunately as I am a Shelbourne supporter and they stymied our push for promotion recently.
Most Shels fans dismiss the club as a sporting franchise, a Fingal County Council plaything and, based in Morton Stadium in Santry, they are hardly ‘local’ to Dublin 15, despite Fingal’s attempts to make us all feel that we belong to their little empire.
They do however play real football, sometimes badly, sometimes well, but it does actually exist in the real world. You can actually go down to a match, pay your €12 in and actually shout at players and officials in a situation where they can hear you. Sometimes they will even answer you!
Now I am not advocating that everybody climbs down off their barstool and goes and watches Torpedo Fingal. I’d prefer if they came and saw Shels. Or Clonee United or Verona or Castleknock Celtic or some team that is putting a huge amount of time and effort into representing the local community, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. But at least go and watch a real match! You can still follow your soap opera for the rest of the week!
In my confirmation class, I once had the temerity to ask if you could be a good Christian and not go to Church. In reply, I was told the parable of the boy who wanted to be a boy scout (this was back in the mists, when Baden-Powell infamously promoted Scouting for Boys!) He purchased the uniform, practised his reef knot and bowline until they were perfected, lit campfires from two pieces of flint and sang all the campfire songs. Yet he never attended a meeting. Could he claim to be a real Boy Scout?
In the same way, a true United follower can tell you how many goals Giggsy has scored and how many they beat Valencia by the last time they played them and how much shopping Rio Ferdinand bought on the day he was supposed to take a drugs test.
But if he never goes to a match, is he a real football supporter?
Support your local team.
Reclaim the game.

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