Paul Rouse: As well as being hard to define, spirit is extraordinarily elusive to create

Teams that play with spirit, that seem to own the air, that are inspired and stimulated, that set about a game in a way that fills the imagination are exactly what sport demands
Paul Rouse: As well as being hard to define, spirit is extraordinarily elusive to create

Kerry celebrate with their Munster final win with panellist Sean O’Leary, who was recently in a car crash. David Moran says this squad has the best spirit of any group he has been in.

The Italian artist Salvatore Garau recently sold an invisible sculpture for €15,000. This was twice the reserve price. The sculpture is entitled ‘Io Sono’ (“I am” in Italian).

Apparently, the fact that all the buyer received was a certificate of authentication that is signed and stamped by Garau does not seem to have raised any alarm bells.

As if to underline the sheer extent of his audacity, Garau is said to have set down instructions that the sculpture be displayed in an area 5ft long by 5ft wide, in a private home, unhindered by any obstruction.

Basically, he didn’t want nothing to be obscured by anything or something.

A magnificent piece of reporting on the sale of the invisible statue in Newsweek included the following line: “Because the piece does not exist, there are no special lighting or climate requirements.” It is not clear either what the security arrangements are —but it cannot be easy to protect something that cannot be seen. In the same way that TV viewers of a certain age will remember the havoc wreaked by the Invisible Man, originally the creation of HG Wells, and a figure so prominent in popular culture that versions of the story continue to emerge on film, audio drama, and comics.

According to Garau, however, his sculpture is not “nothing”; instead it is actually a “vacuum”, and its purpose is to activate a person’s imagination. And as an engineer patiently explained, a “vacuum is a space in which nothing affects any processes being carried on there”.

And we all know how important processes are to sport…..

The €15,000 ‘Io Sono’ is only the latest of Garau’s pieces. As he said of another of his invisible sculptures (in the middle of Piazza della Scala in Milan): “It is made of air and spirit.” If you could own air and spirit — and if you could own a vacuum and use it to stimulate and inspire and activate every human’s imagination — it could legitimately be claimed that €15,000 would actually be an exceptionally cost-effective investment.

Teams that play with spirit, that seem to own the air, that are inspired and stimulated, that set about a game in a way that fills the imagination are exactly what sport demands. It is something that is sought by participants and spectators, alike.

But how do you define these things? How do you measure spirit?

The modern insistence for reducing sport to a series of statistical categories is all pervasive. It is something that is now wrapped around every meaningful match in every significant sport.

Even low-ranking GAA teams have a small army of analysts who deliver real-time statistics into a dressing room at half-time and at full-time. More detailed analysis is provided in days that follow. These are later bounded together to offer the profile of a season. And then of a run of seasons.

And there is a merit in that. If you can deal in facts, in hard evidence, it makes every decision easier, gives ballast to every piece of instruction and coaching. For example, if you can show a player that they turned the ball over to the opposition four times in a match, conceded three frees and kicked two wides, it’s fairly obvious to all what the problems are. And there is a measure there to monitor progress.

Similarly, if a team has 40 attacks in a match and only scores from 40% of those attacks, there’s clearly an issue with attacking efficiency.

These are technical things that can be improved through coaching: it’s a hard, relentless, frustrating, repetitive grind to truly make advances here. But technical advance without spirit carries only limited merit when the air gets thinner.

Eoghan Cormican reported in this paper last Monday how the team spirit within the Kerry panel is unlike anything the veteran David Moran has experienced during his 14 seasons playing for the county senior team.

That is a fair statement when you consider that this is a span that includes two All-Ireland-winning teams. In the aftermath of the defeat of Cork in the Munster final, Moran said: “The team spirit in the squad, I’m not sure I’ve been part of a squad with such a squad ethos. Some fellas come in, some start. I’ve got taken off in plenty of games this year and I wasn’t giving out. Jack Barry came off today, he could have stayed on. I think the team is bigger than that at the moment. It’s just a close-knit squad. Winning helps too. Fellas just seem to get on. I’m not sure exactly where the team spirit is coming from, but it’s good so far.”

In saying he wasn’t sure precisely where the team spirit was coming from, Moran got right to the heart of things. As well as being hard to define, spirit is elusive to create. Every team may yearn for it, but intentions are one thing and actuality another.

And the modern history of sport is littered with examples of men who promise to have access to the secret to this alchemy. Even those who appear to have it — or who may once have had it, like José Mourinho — come unstuck in the end.

Spirit is often connected with the “culture” of a team. But that doesn’t really help much either when you seek to break it down into practicalities. It is commonplace now to hear people talk about the “culture” in a team or a club; it is not always clear they know what they are talking about. In respect of sport and preparing a team, it is said in a vague way that “culture” is a word that can be clarified as “how things are done”.

That feels a little simplistic. Back towards the end of the last millennium, Raymond Williams (Welsh, academic, novelist and critic who made the study of culture his life’s work) wrote that culture was “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” There is one very basic thing to say about this pursuit of “spirit” and “culture”. You can always see it in a team — this is true in victory and defeat. And equally you can see it when it’s not there. In fact, it is in the negative aspect that it most often reveals itself. A team without spirit rots in front of your eyes. When it comes down to it, there is no real science to it, you seek and strain, try to do everything right, but still it doesn’t work. In part, it is in this absence of logic that some (or even much) of the glory and agony of sport can be found, in the not knowing what else to do.

Perhaps it would be at this point that a county board might consider commissioning a sculpture from Salvatore Garau. In fairness, there have been men across the island who gave spent money on greater madnesses in the pursuit of a medal.

- Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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