Our Boys In Green!

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Our Boys In Green!

  1. 1. 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 Times JEAN MERCEREAU 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 1
  2. 2. (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 2
  3. 3. 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 1995: 449). 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 3
  4. 4. 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 4
  5. 5. 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, 5
  6. 6. 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 6
  7. 7. 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 newspaper: “* 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” (II, 11-10-2005). 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). 7
  8. 8. 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 8
  9. 9. 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: 322). 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 examples: • “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); 9
  10. 10. • “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’” (II, 12-10-2005). 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 10
  11. 11. 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 11
  12. 12. 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). 12
  13. 13. i « 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 ii 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. iii 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. iv 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 the Marseillaise”. v 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. vi 17 of them played in England at the time and one in Spain (Ian Harte). vii 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”. viii 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”.
  14. 14. BIBLIOGRAPHY ALLEN, Stuart (1999), News Culture, Buckingham: Open University Press. COELHO, Nuno (2001), Portugal, a equipa de todos nós: Nacionalismo, Futebol e media, Lisboa: Edições Afrontamento. 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: Palgrave. 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: Routledge. SMITH, Anthony (1991), National Identity, London: Penguin.

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