Nice to mix with gods but football still wins hands down with me

At the height of the debate about opening up Croke Park to ‘foreign’ games, a hurling aficionado of my acquaintance offered up a soundbite for the ages.

Nice to mix with gods but football still wins hands down with me

A clash of the ash purist — but then, is there any other kind? — he declared, with tongue only partly in-cheek, that if it was up to him he wouldn’t even allow Gaelic football to be played in the holy ground.

So I can only imagine how delighted he must have been with the first episode of The Game on RTÉ on Monday night, a ravishing celebration of hurling in which, from its bold title onwards, hype and history relentlessly rhymed.

“Hurling’s a game for the gods. And gods play it.”

“That feel from the hurley, it runs up the handle into your hand, and really into your soul.”

“When you go onto the hurling pitch, you feel like a warrior.”

“The smack in the middle of the bas and the ball just soars. You soar with it and I think, in a way, you never come back.”

The superlatives just kept on coming. It was almost enough to make you want to hurl.

“Nobody owns hurling, hurling just lives…that game has given us identity…it runs deep…it’s our DNA…it’s part of what we are…”

And all this before we even got to Chapter One which, upon seeing that it was called ‘Birth Of The Hurler’, had me half-expecting to be transported forthwith to a stable in Bethlehem.

But no, the Messiah in this case turned out to be Cúchulainn. Obviously.

Still, I was glad I stuck with the programme through to the end.

The frenetic opening pace eventually cooled off, the soundbites gave way to longer and more interesting contributions — Sean Óg Ó hAlpín on how hurling helped him find his place as a kid in Cork was particularly good — and the archive footage was never less than compelling.

And, beautifully-filmed throughout, it could hardly have done more to entrance a passing tourist than a thousand ads for the Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way and whatever you’re having yourself.

But I was even gladder, in a perverse kind of way, that I stayed with the box for the succeeding programme.

In a piece of RTÉ scheduling which was either inspired or mischievous or both, The Game was followed immediately by The Fifa Family: A Love Story, a startlingly quick-fire transition from the occasionally sublime to the almost always ridiculous — and worse.

From vote-buying through to political interference by the Elysee Palace, the twisted tale of how Qatar ended up as hosts of the 2022 World Cup is well-known in its broad terms but the unique selling point of this 2017 Danish documentary was the central contribution of Mary Lynn Blanks, the former girlfriend of the late US football administrator Chuck Blazer, the Falstaffian figure who funded a preposterously lavish lifestyle at the game’s expense before the Feds finally nabbed him in New York, in the classic manner, for declining to pay his taxes.

Then, also in the classic manner, having made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, they maximised his access and influence as a member of the all-powerful Fifa Executive Committee by arming him with a bugged car key fob — no, really — to penetrate and expose the corruption scandal which resulted in those famous early morning arrests of top officials at a hotel in Zurich.

That story will run and run but, in the meantime, here was a programme which came across like a bonkers romcom mixed with, as one interviewer put it, something “like The Sopranos only with worse people”.

And Mary Lynn Blanks was right there at the heart of it all, living the high life in Trump Tower with Blazer — where he had a separate apartment just for his cats — when they weren’t travelling the world, which was often, mixing with presidents and royalty.

By his own admission, Blazer was happy when Vladimir Putin told him he looked like Karl Marx but it was Lynn Blanks who was in a position to reveal that she had persuaded him to grow his trademark extravagant beard for the sole purpose of hiding his unsightly accordion of three fleshy chins.

She was also on hand when, at a reception in Buckingham Palace, Blazer pocketed their wine glasses as souvenirs.

But it wasn’t all fun and games, far from it. Much more disturbingly, she also described instances of psychological and even physical abuse at Blazer’s hands though, despite plans to leave, she was still with him when the deal finally went down.

From Lory Meagher to Chuck Blazer is one hell of a journey for one night’s telly watching, at the end of which I’d imagine most right-thinking neutrals would have had no option but to conclude: hurling, good; football, bad.

Not to mention, of course: “I’d like to see how yer man Neymar would get on in a county final, wha?”

But you know what? I’ll still be sticking with the round ball game, if it’s all the same to you.

And, I think, at its very essence, my belief that football is the greatest of all the major field games probably boils down to the simple fact that, unless you’re a goalkeeper — or Thierry Henry — it’s a hands-free pursuit.

And that basic principle leads directly to so many of the things I find incomparably thrilling about the game: the close control required in a dribble; the fluency of one-touch passing moves; a high dropping ball, not fielded, but killed dead on the instep; a 30-yard volley to the top corner; a free bent around a wall and inside the post; an overhead kick; a perfectly-weighted pass… no, they don’t call it football for nothing.

Somehow, as so much of the action at the World Cup in Russia reminded us, the beauty at the heart of the beautiful game survives despite all the ugliness.

And while I’m sure I’ll be tuning in for the remaining episodes of ‘The Game’, I also know I’ll be taping it if it clashes with the Monday night football.

Different strokes for different folks, eh?

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