JOHN MCHENRY: Sport has the ability to create an artificial ‘us’

The drama of knowing a particular game like Ireland’s famous victory over Italy will be remembered forever only adds to the occasion, writes John McHenry.

It seems like a good time to be a sports fan. With so many live matches and so much coverage of sport on television, it’s hard to stay current on everything, be that GAA, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Euros, whatever.

Some on the outside wonder what it’s all about? How can people invest so much time, money and effort into an outcome they have no hope of influencing? Why is their demeanour or their mood so influenced by a result? Why do they get so animated when talking about their favourite players or teams?

Strange as all of this may seem, the theme is universal and if the Euros are anything to go by then there’s gotta be something deeper going on.

One could argue sport actually becomes part of our DNA from an early age, when we are encouraged to use it as an exercise or as a social tool. While sport may not always be easy or fun, the sheer effort of participation definitely bonds people together, breaking down the otherwise unpenetrable barriers.

From a fans’ perspective, the culture of being able to create an “us versus them” structure during a match, where a collective “us” can triumph or fail together is exciting. It gives a fan some level of artificial ownership of a situation they would not ordinarily experience.

The drama of knowing a particular game like Ireland’s famous victory over Italy will be remembered forever only adds to the occasion. So too does the fact at the most elite level we can watch the best .001% doing something we can only dream about while sitting on the sidelines or on a barstool, offering our opinion.

The Euros have amply demonstrated again great sporting occasions bring people together, adding a level of closeness that would not be there without them - whether that is on the micro side amongst family or friends or on the macro side where thousands of fans converge on cities to celebrate with complete strangers in a moment of pure innocent joy.

Just look at the emotion that was there for everyone to see when Robbie Brady went over to his family after he scored that tremendous goal against Italy or indeed after Wales’ fantastic victory against Belgium. Sport does that and fans appreciate nothing more than genuine effort.

Last night, more folklore was created when the minnows Wales came up against the more fancied Portugal. For the purists, it was very much a duel that would be decided between Wales’ most famous son Gareth Bale and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but surely the opportunity to reach the finals of the Euros would have meant the team came first.

For Bale, the proven team player, that is a given — for Ronaldo perhaps less so, but for both sets of passionate supporters winning would have been all that counted. No doubt, they would have already devised and forensically analysed their best team strategies but their opinion would have counted for little across a barstool. Their opportunity instead was to make themselves heard inside a stadium palpably buzzing with so much tension and anticipation.

The post-match analysis would come later.

In sports, almost everything is governed by the zero-sum principle — namely someone wins, and someone loses, and last night someone had to bow out of the Euros.

Losing is hard — but while it will be left to the sportswriters and the pundits to write about the contest, both countries’ legions of fans should rejoice in a job well done — not only for everything the players have done on the pitch but also for the inspiration and self-belief they have given not only to the fans but also to the next generation of players to push on in their footsteps, supported no doubt by the next generation of equally committed sports fans.

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