As you’d expect, there was no avoiding their presence. In Kuala Lumpur airport, parents pushed forcefully and desperately past their children to pose for pictures with cardboard cut outs of players, along the streets in the city centre there was a haze of red and blue far off into the distance, in many of the bars there were DVDs of Lionel Messi’s goals on a loop hour after hour. And this wasn’t even match day when the Spanish side took on a Malaysian selection in what amounted to a kick about.
Before we go on, this isn’t another start-of-season rant telling people they can’t support teams in other countries and that it should be about the local and that they must go and watch Drogheda United and Cork City in person instead of Manchester United and Stoke City on television. To think that world still exists is naïve because people want to witness and dissect the best and they now have easy and endless access to it. If sitting in your local pub cheering on some team you keep an eye out for in the Premier League is your thing, then sit back, relax and enjoy the next nine months. But in Malaysia, this wasn’t about cheering on a team you support. It wasn’t even about sport.
For the clubs that take on these tours, they make no secret that it’s all about expanding the brand and opening up new and lucrative markets. They use people that will never get to go and see them play a meaningful game in order to gain access to their wallets. In a world where soccer and money not just cross paths, but are deeply intertwined, that’s to be expected. But what’s sad and unsettling and pathetic is that the hysteria it creates in places like Malaysia is merely about what’s perceived to be the best and by extension, what’s perceived to be the latest fashion trend.
In this case, Barcelona were no different to the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap, the Louis Vuitton bag, the Dolce & Gabbana sun glasses, the Starbucks coffee cup and the bottle of Pepsi. To those pretending to get overwhelmed about a pre-season friendly and cheering a foreign team against their own players and those they have some actual connection to, it was just a desperate attempt at association to popularity and another accessory that suggested status. Next year it could be a Bayern Munich jersey, a New York Yankees baseball cap, a Chanel bag and a bottle of Coke. It is all completely soulless and, knowing what sport can be, it rips the very essence out of what makes it special.
You can only feel sorry for those that don’t know what it really means and what it’s like to actually care out of passion, rather than pretend to care because of labels and tags and image. Indeed contrast what went on in Kuala Lumpur with what went on in Dublin yesterday. Five hours before the All Ireland semi-final began, the streets were flooded by Mayo fans. Old men in suits threw on their crepe paper hats, kids waved flags, women stopped to tie coloured wool from their hair. It created a mist of excitement and nervousness and occasion, and refreshingly it was all completely genuine.
We may not have had Messi and Neymar doing photo shoots and we may not have had the greatest players in the biggest sport of them all demonstrating their skills before our very eyes, but we had something that created a deep meaning for people from across all generations and all backgrounds. We had real sport and we’re fortunate for that because there are large tracts of the world that will never experience just how powerful that can be.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the off-the-field musings and actions of some Gaelic games managers, it’s that nobody is bigger than the sport. Indeed, in trying to get above the game, it will ultimately have the opposite effect. A little less than a year ago, Jimmy McGuinness looked to have created a dynasty and there was talk that his team could win title after title. But as Donegal egos grew a little too big, the bubble quickly burst and some of their manager’s comments were made to look a little silly as they backfired in defeat.
Davy Fitzgerald (pictured) would do well to take note. He’s had a phenomenal season and is one of the most interesting characters about. But in not turning up for his own team’s press night ahead of the All-Ireland, he put himself on a pedestal and suggested he’s more important than others and doesn’t need to do what they rightly see as their responsibility to their fans and to the sport.
He may be heading to a final but just ask McGuinness what can happen when you see yourself as above certain elements of the job. It’s a long way down from the top and if you slip, everyone can sees you fall.
Not many people here know this, but in the bigger, badder sporting world, our name is mud. From the controversy over Michelle Smith, Irish athletes have done some shady things and worse still, we’ve shamelessly defended and even celebrated medals and victories that were nothing to be proud of. Were it China doing the same, our reaction would be outrage but when it’s our own, we do nothing of the sort.
In recent weeks, our unacceptable actions have extended into the world of sporting governance as Pat McQuaid continues his mission to get back to the top of world cycling.
Either he’s in so deep, he can’t see how the sport really feels about him or he simply just ignores it. But the problem is that his latest crusade is making global headlines and wherever his name is printed, so is his nationality. That’s the last thing we need. Our name is already mud but now we could clean it a little by calling out his actions for what they really are — selfish and embarrassing, for him, his sport and his country.
Here in Ireland, we talk about Gaelic games being unique and there being nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Not quite though, as you’ll find something very similar in the most unlikely place — ingrained in the heart of capitalist America. This weekend the college football season starts up again, and there’s no ignoring the similarities. There’s the amateur element, but more than that there’s a sport built on rivalry and tradition, and teams that are essential to life in their communities. They are all things we associate as being behind the special place GAA holds in the pantheon of sports. But college football can make exactly the same claims.