OUR BOYS IN GREEN!
Coverage of the Republic of Ireland football team campaign
for the 2006 World Cup by the Irish Independent and the Irish
Centro de Estudos Humanísticos, Faculdade de Letras e Ciências Humanas, Universidade
do Minho, Braga, Portugal
Sports are often seen as a means of boosting a country’s nationalist feelings, by
openly waving patriotic values which are often refrained when other, more “serious”
matters, are at stake. Football in particular has now gained such importance in our
societies that having a national football team is sometimes considered as important in the
making of a nation as a population, a territory, a government or an armyi. Until the early
1990s, Ireland remained an almost unique exception to this phenomenon but, as anywhere
else, football has now come to concentrate in Ireland the aspirations of a majority of the
population and to play a nationalist function by encouraging “a consciousness of
belonging to the nation, together with sentiments and aspirations for its security and
prosperity”, to quote an expression used by Anthony Smith in his book National Identity
(Smith 1999: 72). In Ireland as in so many other countries, the media play a crucial part
in this process by exploiting this feeling whenever national teams are engaged on the
international scene, and by momentarily giving up the illusion of objectivity to openly
assume partiality as a moral obligation to the nation.
This paper relies on the coverage of the Republic of Ireland football team’s
unsuccessful campaign for the 2006 World Cup by the country’s two leading newspapers,
the Irish Independent and Irish Times, between September 2004 and October 2005. After
describing briefly the various reasons that have prevented football from representing in
Ireland what it stands for in most countries, I will insist on the Republic of Ireland
football team as a metaphor of the nation, and will try to reveal what essential
characteristics of the Irish nation, real or imaginary, are expressed through the
newspapers’ coverage of the event. Finally, I will try to determine how both newspapers
strain to rally their readers to the national cause and take the opportunity of the general
commitment to common national aspirations, however brief and trivial they may seem, to
cement their sense of national identity.
After three unexpectedly successful participations in World Cup finals in 1990,
1994 and 2002ii, the Republic of Ireland began in September 2004 its campaign for the
2006 World Cup in Germany with relative optimism. In a six-team group, Ireland found
herself along with France, Switzerland, Israel, Cyprus and the Faeroe Islands, with only
the winner of the group to qualify while the runner up would be allowed to try its luck in
the play off. In order to carry out this study, and considering that Ireland has no sports
newspapers, I have chosen to analyze three Internet editions of Ireland’s two leading
newspapers on each of the ten games of the campaigniii. This corpus of sixty newspapers
has led to a result of over three hundred articles directly related to the coverage of the
Republic of Ireland team, the Irish Independent dedicating more articles to the event than
the Irish Times (173 against 128, a daily average of 5.8 against 4.2), its articles being on
average substantially shorter than those of its rival (722 words against 890).
For many years, Irish soccer suffered from a relative lack of enthusiasm. There is
no Irish tradition of hysteria for the national team in any way comparable with what may
happen in England or some Southern European countries. This lack of national frenzy is
probably due to various reasons. First of all, for many decades, football was presented as
a foreign sport by orthodox nationalists, unlike native games such as hurling or Gaelic
football and accused of many evils, as reveals the following extract from one of the
founders of the Gaelic Athletic association in December 1884:
If we continue […] condemning the sports that were practiced by our
forefathers, effacing our national features as if we were ashamed of them, and
putting on, with England’s stuff and broadcloths, her master habits and such
other effeminate follies as she may recommend, we had better at once, and
publicly, abjure our nationality, clap hands for joy at the sight of the Union
Jack, and place England’s “bloody red” exultantly above the green (Hussey
This debate is still going on today, with the GAA strongly refusing (until January this
year) that its highly mythical Croke Park should be used for football or rugby matches.
Indeed, native Irish sports are often presented as an element of traditional Irishness and
colonial liberation, while imported games are considered a symbol of foreign invasion as
well as globalizing forces.
Of course, the lack of national frenzy around football may also probably be
explained by the fact that until the late 1980s, Irish fans were not offered many
opportunities for national euphoria because of the weakness of the national team. Things
changed gradually, however, after the “heroic” campaign of the 1990 Italian World Cup
in which Ireland reached the quarter-finals for its very first participation. This
achievement brought about an unusual outpouring of national pride, which appears
clearly, for example, in Roddy Doyle’s novel The Van. At the same time, according to
Jeffrey Hill, it had contradictory effects:
The national side enjoyed a longer period of success and support than it had
ever known, but it was produced by a manager who was English and a team
of talented players whose Irish lineage was often spurious. Their achievement
was as much a reminder of the globalizing forces that were shaping soccer
and society at that time as of any intrinsic Irishness (Hill 2002: 17).
Indeed, beside the symbolic fact that it took an English manager to bring Ireland to the
forefront of the international football scene, some voices were raised about the
authenticity of some players’ Irish identityiv. It must be said, however, that of the 18
players more used by manager Brian Kerr, only five were actually born outside the
Republic of Irelandv.
Another possible reason for the lack of interest in Irish national football is the total
lack of top national clubs with any capacity to compete with other European teams, which
is confirmed by the fact that none of the players of Ireland’s team for the 2006 World Cup
qualification campaign actually played in Irelandvi. Despite a suddenly growing interest in
the national Irish team following the performance of Irish players from the early 1990s
onwards, these restrictions have limited the representation of the nation by the Republic
of Ireland national selection. As Martin Polley puts it,
A national team can, in media and popular discourse, take on the guise of the
nation itself. When we say, for example, that Great Britain always
underachieves in the Olympic Games, we consensually cut out the qualifying
reference to big numbers of sportsmen and women practicing specific sports,
and assume a link between nation and team: sport provides the metonym
whereby the nation is presented as a single sentient being (Polley 1998: 35).
This question of any national selection as a metonymy or, perhaps better even, as a
synecdoche (with one part standing for the wholevii) of eleven fit and healthy young men
in their twenties or early thirties representing the nation, is indeed highly questionable. In
the case of the Republic of Ireland, it is doubly polemical because unlike other sports
such as rugby, cricket or hockey, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland each have
their own national football team, far from the Republican ideal of a national territory
consisting of the whole island of Ireland, as stated in the Constitutionviii.
Despite all these restrictions, to what extent may Irish athletes be seen as
embodying certain features usually held as national characteristics? The first one is about
the dedication to the green jersey and, through it, to the whole Irish nation. This is, for
example, the real meaning that lies behind statements by the players such as “”We’re here
to do our best for our country” (Irish Independent, 0709-2004). According to the
newspapers, if there is one thing that cannot be questioned, it is the players’ dedication to
the green shirt: “One thing about Irish players is that, whatever the circumstances - good,
bad or indifferent - you can never doubt their attitude” (Irish Times, 08-10-2005) or “If
the players never looked good enough to win the game they at least looked as though they
desperately wanted to” (IT, 13-10-2005). All these expressions combine to give the
impression that the players are determined to give their last breath on the field for the
sake of the nation’s glory. In other words, as the Independent puts it, “the strengths which
are supposed to define the Irish team are the old blood and guts one” (II, 05-09-2004).
Beside the players’ good will and dedication to the national cause, the newspapers
insist on the fact that it takes men to win, and apparently include in this definition
qualities of virility, physical strength, courage and determination. First of all, to show the
example and lead his troops to victory and glory, “A good captain should be the “boot,
bollock and bite type”, and the first to “put bodies on the line on the battlefield” if
necessary (II, 12-10-2005). For the Independent, this is clearly the key to success: “If
Ireland are prepared to roll up their sleeves and scrap for every ball then they will be well
on the road to victory” (II, 12-10-2005). And the qualities needed are summed up even by
the more reserved Irish Times on the eve of the decisive game: “It's a night for chests out,
a sense of pride and for the strong to lead their team-mates to the play-offs” (IT,
12-10-2005). On the whole, the necessary qualities are probably best summed up by this
sentence from the Irish Independent: “what's needed tonight is a hefty dose of quot;where's
your f***ing pridequot; stimulus to ignite the players” (II, 12-10-2005).
Until the end, a doubt remains about the real qualities of Ireland players,
oscillating between “men of honour” and “cowering wimps” according to the events (II,
12-10-2005). After the dream has finally come to an end, the main responsibility is found
in the player’s lack of personality, without anyone to “scare your Granny” any more than
a “crew of poodles” (II, 12-10-2005). The players have disappointed a whole nation in
failing to defend the national interests, and are justly punished for it: “The good Bible
tells us the meek shall inherit the earth but these meek Irish players won’t inherit a place
in the World Cup finals” (II, 12-10-2005). In other words, God’s justice has been made,
and the whole country is denied a national dream because of the personal failure of a few
of its men.
Beyond the exhortation of national qualities, it is also relevant to say a few words
about the newspapers’ attitude towards Ireland’s opponents, since beyond the sporting
results, each nation’s place and potential role on the international scene are clearly at
stake. As Martin Polley puts it, “the physical performances of a country’s chosen
representatives are structurally the more general state of the nation, particularly its wealth,
stability and world position” (Polley 1998: 35). Besides, attempting to establish an
absolute separation between the citizens of different nation states is at the very heart of
any nationalist ideology.
As far as the representation of other nations is concerned, although Irish
newspapers do not go half as far as the British tabloids (Allen 1999: 178), the images they
reproduce of the national team’s opponents sometimes reveal interesting national reflexes.
The most striking example is expressed against Switzerland, and both games between the
two nations are clearly presented as a revenge for two reasons: the Swiss denied Ireland a
place in Euro 2004 in Portugal and, off the field, the organization of the 2008 European
Championship was attributed to Switzerland and Austria despite a joint Irish-Scottish
candidature. This explains titles such as “Payback time for Kerr’s boys” “the first Battle
of Basel” or “Why we want our Swiss revenge”. Here are the reasons presented by the
“* Their 2-1 win in Dublin in October 2002 led to Mick McCarthy's resignation
* Along with Austria, they outmanoeuvred Ireland and Scotland to win the right to host
the Euro 2008 finals
* They beat Ireland in Basel in October 2003 to end hopes of qualifying for Euro 2004”
As far as France is concerned, the journalists’ attitude is still obviously tainted
with old fashioned respect for one of the world’s greatest nations as far as what matters –
football – is concerned: “Tonight the Irish will storm the Stade de France, that great
bastion of French football in Saint Denis, and attempt to knock the aristocrats of
European football of their lofty perch” (II, 09-10-2004); Ireland is presented like a poor,
small country once again, which it is … at least as far as football results are concerned.
But any complex of inferiority is dismissed after the goalless draw obtained by the Irish
team in Paris: “The one about the French being the best lovers in Europe has to be a
myth…” (II, 09-10-2004). Faith and traditional Irish values allow the Green Army to turn
their “Passionate pilgrim's progress to Paris” into an act of heroism (II, 09-10-2004).
Following the 0-0 draw, it seems to be not only the French national football team, but the
whole of that nation, that has learnt a lesson from the brave Irish and that the very
hierarchy between both countries has been altered: “French cockerels lack strut as
fighting Irish rule the roost” (II, 09-10-2004).
Israel is a different situation: the holy land is often presented as the “promised
land” (much more important than any religious background, this expression means a place
where three points might be gained) and an accumulation of religious images (sin,
redemption…) may be found in both newspapers. Both Cyprus & the Faeroe Islands play
in another category, both their size and political weight corresponding to their football
status, that is, basically insignificant. Both teams are most the time referred to as “poor
part-timers” (II, 13-10-2004) but nonetheless potential “banana skins” (IT, 11-10-2004) or
“party poopers” (II, 13-10-2004).
In order to rally every citizen to the national cause, both newspapers do not
hesitate to insist on the national symbols to reinforce the sense of common myths and
memories which are one of the fundamental features of national identity (Smith 1999:
14). Frequent mentions of national symbols such as the green colour, the flag, the national
anthem, the fans’ leprechaun hats or even president Mary Mc Aleese who made of point
of attending the first game of the campaign, reinforce the importance and solemnity of the
moment. Another device used to create common links between citizens, in a country
whose international fame and tourist industry rely heavily on some of its most famous
writers, consists in applying titles of well known Irish literary works to definite situations:
Roddy Doyle’s best-seller A Star Called Henry becomes the name of an Irish
Independent article dedicated to French wonder Thierry Henry (IT, 09-10-2004), James
Joyce’s Stephen hero now applies to Stephen Elliott (“Republic find a Stephen hero”, II,
09-06-2005) and Yeats’s famous poem on the 1916 Easter Rising helps making up the
title of a piece on Henry after he “crucified” Ireland hopes with a stunning goal:
“Thierry's terrible beauty hits Kerr's best-laid plans” (II, 08-09-2005).
Another trick used by the newspapers to increase their readers’ feeling of
belonging to the nation is the usual description of football as an allegory of war, thus
implying that the nation is in real danger. This is particularly clear in the repetition of
expressions such as “battlefield”, “trenches” or “front” to refer to the football field,
“warriors”, “army” (great or green according to the circumstances) and general or
commander to describe the players. Repeatedly, the National Stadium is referred to as
“fortress Lansdowne”, standing out as some sort of national lighthouse supposed to lead a
whole nation to victory and glory. As George Orwell already wrote over half a century
ago, football is presented as “mimic warfare”, or “war minus the shooting” (Orwell 2002:
Finally, both newspapers make obvious efforts to create what Anthony Smith calls
a “collective self”, especially by inventing a glorious past and turning former players into
mythical heroes. The Irish Independent, for example, misses the days when the players
“knew what wearing the green jersey meant” (II, 11-10-2005). This newspaper even
offers a portrait of all the captains of the national team since the early 1980 with a
respective assessment. In the case of Ireland, there are not many instances of a glorious
past, but some figures are given mythical status to invent common myths and historical
memories, a fundamental feature of nationalist ideology.
In purely journalistic terms, both newspapers, though not in equal proportions,
rely on a certain dramatization of the tone, with accumulations of categorical, stern
statements and repetition of solemn words related to high moral values: pride, courage,
honour, duty. These techniques combine to give the illusion that the very survival of the
whole nation, with its three and a half million inhabitants, is at stake. Here are a few
• “A nation expects” (II, 08-10-2004);
• “The fears of one nation” (II, 08-09-2004);
• “Time for display of pride and passion” (IT, 12-10-2005);
• “One goal away from history” (II, 04-09-2004);
• “It was a night filled with noise and fed by thumping heartbeats” (II, 09-19-2004);
• “A night when survival was enough” (II, 09-09-2004);
• “The f****** difference between winning and losing! Between livin’ and dyin’”
This sentence reminds the famous quote by Bill Shankly, a former Scottish player and
manager: “Football isn’t a matter of life and death ...it’s much more important than that!”.
The coverage of the very last game of the campaign is of special interest because
of its outcome: after a goalless draw against Switzerland in Dublin, Ireland ends fourth of
the group (behind France, Switzerland and Israel!) and is denied a place in the play offs,
which would have meant not only a possibility of entering the World Cup but also a
considerable amount of cash for the chest of the FAI. This sad end to the campaign
inspires a different reaction from the newspapers. First of all, they obviously no longer
feel the need to back the national team at all cost and can openly offer some sort of
critical judgement especially directed against the FAI and its president Delaney. As far as
journalism goes, especially its most popular tradition, this is indeed the wisest way out:
bringing down the responsibility of the failure to a single, powerful and easily identifiable
individual. But on the whole, and more significantly as far as this study is concerned, both
newspapers take the opportunity to express widely-shared feeling about the performance
of the team and the reasons for its failure. Indeed, reading the articles published on the
day following Ireland’s draw with Switzerland (compared by the Irish Independent to “a
death in the family”), it seems that Ireland’s weaknesses suddenly became obvious to the
observers, and both newspapers draw a sad but supposedly realistic conclusion.
From one day to the other, Ireland’s national team has become “an average team
who punch above their weight on occasions” (IT, 12-10-2005)and which “could only
offer perspiration when inspiration was required” (IT, 13-10-2005), according to the Irish
Times, while the Independent regrets the “lack of fantasy” and the “mediocrity” of
yesterday’s heroes, to conclude bitterly that “the boys in green's fortunes echo the bad old
days” (II, 13-10-2005). What has happened to the players who were, until yesterday,
described as “extravagant ball players with a South American level of skill” (II,
13-10-2004), with “an ability to pick the lock of even the most formidable defences with
the deftness of a burglar” (IT, 12-10-2005)? At the same time, it is probably significant
that while the Independent already speculates about the next manager, and dreams aloud
about future victories, the more reserved Irish Times bitterly takes the lessons from the
failure by coming to this bitterly realistic conclusion: “perhaps the modern player doesn't
respond to people outside his own income group”. This is probably the closest a sport
journalist may come to biting the hand that feeds him.
This brief study of the coverage of the national football team’s campaign of
qualification for the 2006 World Cup by Ireland’s leading newspapers seems to confirm a
fact already widely debated in the past few years: the emergence of football as an
essential criterion of identification with the nation. It has also accessorily confirmed
journalistic options by each newspaper, with the Irish Independent usually sticking to the
traditional recipes of the popular press (although still far from the worst excesses of
British tabloids) and relying more on personality-centred articles, dramatic tone, use of
superlatives and monosyllabic words than its rival the Irish Times. But, above all, I think
this raises an essential question: if, as Mike Cronin puts it, “The strength of the Gaelic
games, the very peculiarity of its parochial nationalism, is that it allows Ireland to say to
the rest of the world, “this is us, this is our game””, then what is the message conveyed to
the world through football? Well, this study has apparently revealed that football has now
become what it has already been for some time in most countries: some sort of broadest
cultural common denominator or, as John Waters ironically put it a few years ago, “one of
the only things that […] appear to bring us together in what outwardly appears to be a
unified expression of communal feelings, with the National Lottery and occasional bouts
of fine weather” (Waters 1997: 183). In this aspect, as in so many others, Ireland may
have resisted longer than other countries, but it is less and less an exception and has not
escaped the football phenomenon, which is hardly surprising coming from a country
which is usually ranked among the most globalized in the world (O’Toole 2003: 4).
« Aujourd’hui un État c’est un territoire, une population, un gouvernement, une armée et une équipe de football ».
Christian Bromberger, http://www.cnrs.fr/Cnrspresse/n400/html/n4000foot01.htm
In which the Republic of Ireland always reached the knock out stages: the quarter finals in 1990 and the last sixteen
twice, in 1994 and 2002.
The newspapers issued on the day of the matches as well as on the previous and following days were analyzed. All the
games took place on Wednesdays or Saturdays; when on Saturdays, the newspapers selected for the following day were
on Monday for the Irish Times and on Sunday for the Irish Independent by means of the Sunday Independent.
Many jokes have remained about how easy it would be for a reasonably gifted football player to be handed an Irish
passport, one of them by a former Wales manager, Mike England, in 1986: “If you have a fortnight’s holiday in Dublin,
you qualify for an Eire cap”. This critique, of course, is not limited to Ireland, other national teams having been recently
criticized for their multiethnic composition and the growing number of athletes changing nationalities for political,
sporting or financial reasons, has led to many nations integrating athletes who have not much to do with the countries
they represent. One may think, for example, of the Front National leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s famous attack on the
French national team which won the 1998 World Cup: “Half the team are foreigners who don’t even know the words to
A. O’Brien, D. Duff, K. Kilbane, M. Holland and S. Reid. Only one player, Clinton Morrison, who could choose
between England, Jamaica or Ireland, acquired the Irish nationality just in time to participate in the competition.
17 of them played in England at the time and one in Spain (Ian Harte).
According to Chris Baldick’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, a metonymy consists in “replacing the
name of one thing with the name of something else closely associate with it” whereas, in a synecdoche, “something is
indirectly referred to, either by naming only one part or constituent of it or – less often – by naming some more
comprehensive entity of which it is a part”.
Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann / Constitution of Ireland: “The national territory consists of the whole island of
Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas”.
ALLEN, Stuart (1999), News Culture, Buckingham: Open University Press.
COELHO, Nuno (2001), Portugal, a equipa de todos nós: Nacionalismo, Futebol e media, Lisboa:
CRONIN, Mike (1999), Sport and Nationalism in Ireland: Gaelic Games, Soccer and Irish Identity
since 1870: Dublin: Four Courts Press.
HILL, Jeffrey (2002), Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-century Britain, Basingstoke:
HUSSEY, Gemma (1995), Ireland Today, Anatomy of a Changing State, London: Penguin.
ORWELL, George (2000), Essays, London: Penguin.
POLLEY, Martin (1998), Moving the Goalposts, a History of Sport and Society since 1945, London:
SMITH, Anthony (1991), National Identity, London: Penguin.