Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine Ireland had actually qualified for this World Cup? (Imagine being actually able to remember Ireland’s qualifying campaign for this World Cup?). How would it have gone? Unlubricated by the gargle which has elevated us to deity status at every other tournament we’ve ever travelled to, would our fans - sober - win hearts and minds as they always have? Or would the dastardly Japanese wipe our eyes with their fastidious post-game Marie Kondo-ing of the stadiums? Or the beautiful Argentinians with their fanatical singing?
How would we have done on the field? Would we have won a game, or even a point, or would we leave convincing ourselves we are in good nick for the next Nations League campaign? Well, wonder no more. Here’s a limited sample size, group A-D hypothesis as to how we, the Republic of Ireland soccer team, would have fared in the Middle east.
Replacing Catholic Ecuador, we hold hosts Qatar to a scoreless draw in the opening game of the tournament in a game so demonstratively devoid of chances, David Beckham pledges to return the $250m paid to him to promote the World Cup, citing false advertising. We blame the heat, despite it being cooler in Doha than an August day in Bray. The point raises hopes we could take something from Senegal, and threaten to storm the hallowed turf of Stadium 974 when Alan Browne’s daisy-cutter puts us 1-0 up. Alas, we succumb to the incessant energy and superior class of the West Africans.
Ever the romantics, we spend three days convincing ourselves we can beat the Netherlands and qualify. During this time, Stephen Kenny visits migrant worker camps, publishing a series of proletariat manifestos that see him threatened with expulsion from the host country. Despite going 1-0 down early on, we hang on ‘til the dying moments, before Cody Gakpo taps in following a hilariously defended set-piece.
Gavin Bazunu. Irish fans convincing random Lebanese people, hired by Qatar to support them, to switch sides and support Ireland instead.
Bye bye Cymru, hello Eire! There is a certain novelty the World Cup elicits when it comes to facing teams you’ve only ever played a handful of times in history, but perennially feel superior to. This philosophy serves us well against the USA, despite them being vastly superior in almost every area, especially confidence and patriotic hairstyles. We concede early, and threaten very little by way of retort until Nathan Collins produces a goal worthy of a ten-part RTÉ Doc called 'One Night in the Education City Stadium'. We “tie” 1-1. Despite best diplomatic efforts, our second game against the Old Enemy is dominated by the defectors - Declan Rice and Jack Grealish.
Gareth Southgate is so sound, he picks neither, hoping to diffuse any political tension. The game is historically dour and ultimately goalless. With two points, our game against Iran is billed as one of the biggest in our history. We lose 2-0.
Gavin Bazunu. Irish fans convince sober English fans to join them in a rendition of Revenge for Skibbereen, with Nigel Farage caught belting out the chorus.
Poland step aside to allow us the privilege of drawing with Mexico 0-0 and 1-1 with Saudi Arabia. Needing to beat Argentina and Messi to qualify from the group, we produce a performance the great Admiral Guillermo Brown (look him up) would be proud of. La Pulga scores twice, but rather than surrender to his greatness, his goals liberate the Irish team to play the greatest half of Kenny-ball yet. Chiedozie Ogbene scores a worldie, setting up a grandstand climax that sees us pass like ‘82 Brazil, but finish like San Marino. We fail, but hey, we win hearts and minds in the process.
Gavin Bazunu. Irish people finally learn about Admiral Guillermo Brown.
Flagged as our best chance to qualify from any group, we replace Denmark, who drop out on conscientious grounds. In our opening game against Australia, we do absolutely zero homework, and consequently have no clue that the Socceroos are actually decent. Ignorance is bliss. We score two early goals before becoming self-conscious, conceding, and hanging on like a convict thrown overboard on a boat to Van Diemen's land. The win is greeted with scenes not witnessed since Johnny Logan won his first Eurovision. Micheál Martin prepares to travel to the French game before suspiciously succumbing to Covid-19. Leo takes his place, mistakenly singing La Marseillaise alongside Macron, before being reminded it’s not our anthem, but theirs.
We hang on to Les Bleus 'tll the hour mark. Three goals in 30 minutes from Kylian “Cillian” Mbappé sees us on the brink of elimination. Last up is Tunisia. The weight of an expectant nation proves too much, so too our inability to create chances. Scoreless and on the verge of going through with four minutes on the clock, Wahbi Khazri breaks Irish hearts, another concession from another comical set-piece.
Gavin Bazunu. Moments after Kazri’s screamer, Cherry Orchard Credit Union immediately revises downwards profit projections for 2023.
Jesus. I just realised that we have been so browbeaten by mediocrity and low expectations that even my daydreams end in disappointment. Was Shakespeare wrong?
Is it better to have loved and drawn, goalless to Qatar, than never to have loved at all?
Alas, we’ll never know.
Oh, the irony! This World Cup that many of us have long mined for wordcount, justifiably in the face of the nefarious context of its host nation’s attitudes to human life, has, so far, been arguably the most entertaining in living memory. It's timing too, right smack in the middle of winter, with our short evenings and few after-school obligations has proved an accidental masterstroke. Bar the few admirable conscientious objectors, everyone - it seems - is watching. It has helped that the gap between good and great seems to be slimmer than the Emir’s credit card. Some will point to an actual dearth of that indefinable “greatness” - no great teams, no dominant players, but regardless of the actual standard vs excitement argument (who cares?), there has been an almost relentless emergence of on-field storylines that has been a welcome panacea to the greed and corruption off it.
We thought, because of the globalisation of sport, we knew every player, and so little could surprise us. How wrong we were. The rise of African teams, once again defying lazy stereotypes as being disorganised and flaky, and the seemingly eternal joy of watching Leo Messi walk around a football pitch in between moments of genius, will be what endures whoever ends up with the trophy on December 18th.
Surveying Messi - especially with young children up past their bedtime - is like going whale watching. You try to keep their focus by prompting them every time he touches it, the same way you’d peer over the side of a boat, elbowing them every time you think you see the surface ripple, hoping to see a humpback breach. With Messi, you brace yourself, and them, hoping he will do something God-like, and when he inevitably does you pray they remember it the same way you did, the first time you understood what genius was.
For all the clubs in GAA action over this past weekend today will be a welcome relief, regardless of yesterday's results. Playing on near consecutive weekends week after week after week leaves little room to actually take pause and celebrate the achievement of winning county championships, which may already seem like a distant memory to those still competing.
It was an unexpected upshot of the anomalous COVID-19 season, where county champions knew their seasons ended the very evening they raised aloft the trophy. While none of us wants a return to those tormented times, learning to savour the magic of the moment is a lesson well worth remembering.
This back page has long empathised with Gisele Bundchen, and does so again with the news that her 45-year-old ex-husband Tom Brady may be considering a move back to New England, their home for some two decades and the scene of his greatest triumphs.
What must she think about all his flip-flopping? Retiring, before realising mowing lawns was more challenging than facing a zone-blitz D? Wanting to flee Boston and Bill Belichick for the sun, and a coach who’ll let him do as he wishes, only to potentially reverse it to restore a Patriot? How long before he sends the text saying maybe he made a mistake, and it's time to re-couple?