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Saturday, June 16, 2012
If we took economic collapse, soaring unemployment, evaporating pensions, and the prospect of years of austerity imposed on us to pay off private bankers’ gambling debts half as seriously as we took sport, then we’d have a revolution more or less the second Tuesday of every month.
Barricades at every junction, manifestos on every billboard, Kalashnikov gangs at every roadblock. Champions of the status quo swinging from lamp-posts like Mussolini and his mistress.
Maybe it is just as well that we do not, but the furore caused by Roy Keane’s comments following Thursday night’s 4-0 defeat by world champions Spain, that it was not enough for Irish supporters to go along for the sing-song every now and again, have hit a national raw nerve and again divided the country along the decade-old Saipan faultline. Keane, advancing the same arguments he did after Thursday’s thrashing, was the catalyst for that tragic farce as well.
His contention, shaped by the uncompromising ambition that made him a great player, remains that we need to work harder and prepare better if we are ever to give a credible performance at a major international soccer tournament.
The evidence is, unfortunately, that this applies to nearly all Irish teams involved in international competition, but no matter how we prepare, it is almost impossible to overcome issues of scale. It is not even vaguely defeatist to recognise that on Thursday night the principle was demonstrated simply enough. Spain’s population at just over 47m is more than 10 times the Republic’s. The implications are obvious and stark.
However, this morning’s events in Christchurch, where Ireland played the All Blacks, counter that argument. New Zealand has a population very much like our own yet they are, by harnessing a dogged fanaticism, world champions like Spain. Unless the Irish team made history we will suffer a defeat similar in proportion to the one inflicted on us on Thursday night. To reach this level New Zealand is almost a sporting theocracy and rugby their god. Virtually every other sport is sidelined. Thankfully, it is impossible to imagine that blinkered position might be reached in Ireland.
Keane’s argument is so stinging because we all know it carries a kernel of truth, and not just in sporting terms. The conflict is rooted in the reality that we may not be prepared to make the great, unsettling changes needed to perform better.
We may not want to be as hard or as ruthless as the most successful professional sports people need to be, and that is to our credit. Our humanity reins in our ambition and, naturally enough, we pay a price for that; sometimes an extraordinary price. Maybe that’s why ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was sung with such emotion on Thursday. The pragmatists among us realise we’ll never be world-beaters but are happy to participate with the joie de vivre that probability and freedom facilitates.
In recent years we have seen, in politics and finance, what it means to be a supplicant nation dependent on the expensive kindness of strangers. We have seen how power really works and the choices open to the weaker partner in a relationship. Maybe if we took Keane’s argument and applied it to our public life we would make the best use of his passionate, needling and unsettling challenge. After all, he is doing no more than advocating the great reform we all know must happen. Then we might have a real revolution and beat Spain and the All Blacks.
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