As the World Cup rumbles on, I've found myself thinking of my relationship with soccer.
This is a simple, stylized description of my attitude towards soccer through my thirty-six years. Up until the age of twelve, absolutely no interest at all. From around thirteen to seventeen, a passionate and even excessive interest. From about seventeen to twenty, a diminishing interest. Since then, a very casual interest indeed.
I do remember the 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico. I remember the Panini World Cup stickers and Pique, the cartoon pepper wearing a sombrero who was its mascot. (I never realised he was a pepper. I only found that out right now.) I didn't watch any of the matches. I just remember the hype.
Then, when Jack Charlton became manager of the Irish national soccer team, I began to take an interest, partly because my little brother became utterly fascinated by it. In fact, the 1990 World Cup in Italy (which was the first for which Ireland ever qualified) stands out in my mind, not only as the beginning of my continuous memory (before that I only have erratic flashes), but-- and I know this seems like a grandiose claim-- as a landmark moment in Irish social history.
I don't think it's a matter of cause and effect, but it seems to me that, before and up to the 1990 World Cup, Ireland was still just about a Catholic, nationalist, rather old-fashioned country. In retrospect, it seems like the Indian summer of innnocence. (Amongst other things, the wave of clerical sex abuse cases that rocked the Irish Catholic Church only really hit us in the nineties.)
This perception seem like a mere quirk of my own mind, but I've heard other people make similar claims. See this link from the Irish Mirror. (The link is interesting in itself-- being taken to Mass is listed as Irish peoples' happiest memory!) Also, see this link for a more erudite analysis of the event's importance in Irish history.
Ireland reached the quarter finals, where they were knocked out by a single goal from Italy. It's hard to describe the hysteria that gripped the nation. It was everywhere. One could be cynical about this, but I prefer not to be. I have only fond memories of Italia '90. I'm a cultural and social nationalist and it was a rare example of the whole nation coming together-- feeling like one huge extended family, which is what I believe a nation should be.
Jack Charlton also took Ireland to the 1994 World Cup in Italy. There was just as much excitement this time around-- perhaps even more, in a way-- but somehow, it felt less spontaneous and special. It felt like we were deliberately trying to rekindle the magic of Italia '90. But, of course, it's never the same. After an amazing victory over Italy in the first game, we limped out rather dispiritingly in the second round, losing two-nil to Holland.
Between those two World Cups, I had become a bit of a soccer fanatic. I was a fan of Liverpool Football Club. (Irish soccer fans tend to take an interest in English teams rather than Irish teams, because the Irish soccer league is terrible.) I even wrote away for their autographs. I became an enthusiastic player of Subbuteo. My bedroom wall was bedecked with soccer posters. I read the Roy of the Rovers comic. I even invented my own fictional team, Redburn F.C. In all this, I was joined by my even-more enthusiastic younger brother, who was (and is) a soccer encylopedia. (He has an encyclopedic knowledge of other things, too.)
The best consequence of my soccer mania was that I became more social. For most of my childhood, I had no friends and hung around the house all day, living in my own imagination most of the time. From the age of about thirteen, I began to play street (or rather, field) soccer with local kids. These are some of my most glowing memories. I still dream about those games (and the kick-arounds we would have in the school yard in school). They were sheer exhilaration. I also cherisih the memory of the ghost story telling sessions that would sometimes take place afterwards, when it was too dark to play on. (I don't know how often these actually took place, or if it was even more than once. Memory plays tricks, and dwells on the happy parts.)
As I entered my twenties, my interest in soccer began to radically diminish and I even turned against it. By the time Ireland (this time no longer managed by Jack Charlton) reached the 1998 World Cup, I consciously avoided watching any of it. Everybody else in my workplace was absorbed in the Irish games, while I did my best to look disdainful at any mention of them. I let myself take some ironic interest in the big bust-up between our top player Roy Keane and the manager Mick McCarthy, eruditely commenting on the parallels between it and the wrath of Achilles in The Iliad.
My increasing conservatism was part of my hostility to the game. Soccer seemed to embody so many things I hated. It was rampantly commercial. It was completely media-led. More than anything else, it was the sport of globalization. At a time in my life when I was agonizing about the erosion of national and local cultures, soccer seemed an example par excellence of this phenomenon.
But I always had to admit-- I liked the game. When rugby replaced soccer in the affection of the Irish people, I couldn't feel the slightest enthusiasm. Who could get excited about a sport that was so spasdomic, that happened in five-second bursts? At least soccer flowed.
Similarly, though I am, in principle, far more in favour of Irish Gaelic games than I am in favour of soccer-- Irish Gaelic games being Irish, amateur, and rooted in local communities-- I could never real take much of an interest in the sports themselves. I just don't find hurling and Gaelic football entertaining or aesthetically pleasing like I do soccer.
And now...well, now I'm in a bit of a limbo. I still have concerns about globalization and the transormation of sport into big business. However, I'm not sure there's much point wailing over these things. I've watched a lot of the World Cup games with my father, though my interest in them is rather desultory.
One thing I've never liked is the dismissal of sport per se, which is sometimes indulged in by intellectuals and would-be intellectuals of every hue. We are told, by such people, that soccer and spectator sports are mere bread and circuses, serving to distract the populace from important social and political issues. But is life to be all politics, all earnestness? And who actually lives like that?
I had an economics lecturer who dismissed sport as 'form without content'. You could say the same thing about classical music, abstract painting, or dancing. I doubt he would have been as contemptuous of all those things.
Peter Hitchens-- who is probably my favourite contemporary writer-- decries soccer as a 'moronic cult' and 'twenty-two men chasing a bladder around a field'. It would be easy to caricature any human activity in such a reductive way. For Peter Hitchens to sneer at soccer in this way seems as philistine to me as some high-powered businessman calling poetry a waste of time, or a bullishly materialist physicist laughing at philosophy.
What's the point of anything, anyway? Surely we should rejoice in the diversity of human activity, rather than begrudge it?
So there I am. I still think local and indigenous and amateur sports are better than sports that are money-making engines of cultural homogenization. But I've become less solemn about this. I think the social and family bonding that the World Cup brings about is a good in itself. And I think soccer is a great game to watch, and to play.
And I hope Germany wins the World Cup.