Ireland, the USA, Australia and New Zealand have many things in common, not least historical Irish communities, a common language, a common legal system and a passion for sport. One link, not immediately apparent, is that in none of these sport- mad countries is soccer the number one spectator sport, in contrast to most of the world. There are historical, sociological, and developmental reasons for this, but what can be stated, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that, in three of the four, failure by the national team to get to the soccer World Cup finals ( to take place in South Africa next summer) would not be a major news event. The odd one out is Ireland, where failure to qualify, and the circumstances surrounding it, dominated the media here (and indeed in Britain and France) for several weeks after November 19.

The explanation is simple. Soccer in Ireland is largely urban and working-class. It is also underfinanced and in constant competition for players and support with both Gaelic football and rugby. The most talented players have traditionally gone to England. However, the proximity of England, the presence there of a large Irish community and the free availability in Ireland of British and satellite television showing English soccer matches, has generated enormous interest in and support for soccer, albeit at one remove, throughout Ireland. Every week hundreds cross the water to attend games involving their favourite English teams. Add in traditional support for the man (or woman) wearing the green jersey and it is easy to understand why the fortunes of the national soccer team are front page news.

In 2009 the success of the team was invested with a new element. The country is in economic crisis, there is very little good news, and things have not been as bad for 20 years. Back then, in 1988 and more famously in 1990, the Irish soccer team achieved a level of success unequalled before or since, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. Whatever about the footballing merits of the team’s performances (they reached the last eight without actually winning a game – advancing on a penalty shootout), in the rosy hue of nostalgia they are seen as having lifted the spirit of the nation at the time. Fast forward two decades and many hoped that, ceteris paribus, the current team might do likewise.

However, it was not to be. After an unbeaten but uninspiring campaign in the preliminaries, Ireland finished second in her section and qualified for a play-off with France, a footballing giant which was underperforming. The first leg, in Croke Park, was largely disappointing and saw France victorious by a lucky deflected goal. The second leg, in Paris four days later proved a different game. Ireland, needing a victory away from home, abandoned their cautious approach of earlier contests and dominated for much of the game, taking the lead after 30 minutes. The score stayed this way until the end of the regulation 90 minutes and then, since scores over the two games were level, went into overtime.

At a critical point a highly controversial goal was awarded to France after a clear handball assist by the French star player Henri, seen by everybody except the referee and his assistants. The incident was also clearly and unambiguously shown on TV. There was no further scoring and Ireland were out, denied even the opportunity at least to take part in a penalty shootout. Predictably the players and the fans were gutted. Soccer is well known as a game where the referee’s decision is final and also as a game which has up to now rejected the use of modern technology to assist officials with their decisions. There is no “Hawkeye”, there is no review procedure. That, you would think, was that.

Then a departure from the script. Public opinion in Ireland was outraged and refused to let the matter die. Radio and TV stations were swamped with complaints. There were widespread calls for the game to be replayed. The French players in general, and Henri in particular, were branded as cheats. At a higher level, there were dark rumours of a conspiracy by those who ran soccer to ensure that France (a soccer giant) would qualify and Ireland (a soccer minnow) would not.  People who should have known better joined in the chorus. An official complaint was made to FIFA (soccer’s international governing body).  Irish soccer officials reportedly requested that Ireland be invited to participate in the World Cup finals as an extra team.  The display was in some way a metaphor for the reaction of sections of society to the precipitate economic downturn of the last two years. It was unfair, a scapegoat had to be found and the situation rectified!

As I write emotions have cooled and public opinion has become more sanguine. Certainly Ireland were unlucky, having dominated the game in Paris,  but arguably the run which put Ireland into the play-offs was launched by an equally dubious refereeing decision in Ireland’s favour.  In a group game last February Ireland were trailing lowly Georgia – a real soccer minnow -in the closing minutes. The referee then awarded Ireland a penalty for a very dubious handball (the ball actually striking a defender’s shoulder), described by one commentator as scarcely believable. Ireland tied the game and shortly after scored the winning goal. The points gained proved vital later in the group. The coach of Georgia described his players as very angry and added “we did not deserve to lose”.  In both cases, as in many others over the years, the referee’s decision was final. The Irish coach, Giovanni Trapottoni, observed, in effect, that decisions like this happen and that on this occasion Ireland had had the luck. Significantly, Trapattoni was much more muted in his reaction to the Paris defeat than were the Irish players, officials, or sections of the Irish public.

There is no doubt that soccer could do with a good makeover – to include tightening up of discipline on and off the field and proper and severe penalties for downright cheating. There is also a strong case for improving officiating at games either by increasing the number of match officials or using video replays on controversial decisions. Up to now the argument has been that all this would take from the natural flow of “the beautiful game” but with so much at stake and the continued development of technology, it should surely be possible to arrive at some happy medium. At least some good could then come out of the Paris game and its aftermath. As it is, the referee and his officials have been unfairly pilloried, and Thierry Henri, by common consent one of the greatest soccer players of recent years, has had his reputation besmirched. Just last week an English commentator, referring to a hand ball incident, described it as “an Henri moment”.

In conclusion, it is ironic to note that, while Ireland will not be going to South Africa, the USA, Australia and New Zealand will.


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