Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Best fans in the world but....

Roy Keane missed the point. The Irish support in Poland over the last week has won us admirers from all over Europe. The determination to remain in good humour and in good voice, regardless of sporting disappointments is a creditable disposition, not a failing. So impressed where the Italian side that defeated Ireland last Monday with the noise that rocked the stadium in Poznan, that some of their players crossed the pitch to applaud the Irish fans for the atmosphere they brought to the occasion.

That is not however to ignore a troubling aspect to the behaviour of some fans which deserves commentary. The vast majority of the travelling Irish support in Gdansk and Poznan showed the best of what our country has to offer. Not defined by negative scorelines, displaying resilience in the face of adversity, cheerful, engaging, charming and respectful. That is why any contradiction to that reality is so stark and deserves attention to ensure it doesn’t grow out of control. And it is the leadership from football authorities, role-models and reporters that can make all the difference.

Coverage of the European Championship Finals promised a lot with the excellent RTE four-part documentary series ‘Green is the Colour’ but descended to serious depths of poor taste with the crass laddish nonsense that was the undertone of every painful minute of ‘Craig Doyle’s Euro 2012’ programme. It was difficult for example to reconcile the boorish and sexually-loaded questioning of the so called football ‘WAGS’ with the empowering and inspiring game that I know.

Our national sporting sides proudly represent us all over the world and fly our national flag with honour wherever they go. The tricolour deserves better than to have the slogan ‘Pints, Tits, Ireland’ scrawled across it and hung proudly and prominently in a bar as fans gathered before the Spanish encounter in Gdansk. If that slogan was written across another national flag in the past we might have winced to ourselves and used it as an example as how we Irish are different. But unfortunately some of us now think it is simply good fun to encourage a highly embarrassed Italian girl to ‘get them out for the lads’ in a tram in Poznan. It is also disappointing that the Twitter account of a senior international player described as a ‘legend’ the Irish fan pictured kissing the naked breast of a female Croatian fan during the opening fixture of our Euro 2012 campaign.

This lack of leadership in high places was evident much earlier in the campaign to qualify in October 2010 when the priority of the Chief Executive of the FAI was to buy a trainload of Irish fans a round of drinks when travelling to the Ireland-Slovakia game in Zilina. The priority for some in that city on that occasion was to gesture apologetically to a policeman as he observed one drunken Irish fan stagger from one side of the street to another while vomiting on himself.

Irish football belongs as much to the 16 year old female fan, as it does to the ex-international with over 100 caps. It belongs to our most recent immigrant as it does to our die-hard League of Ireland Fan. The FAI have served diversity well with programmes such as ‘Soccer Sisters’, ‘Give Racism the Red Card’, ‘Football for All’ and the advent of Community Football Officers linked with local authorities. It is this leadership that can mould behaviour and shape good practice. The sight of Olivia O’Toole, a true international soccer legend carrying the Olympic Torch through her native Sheriff Street recently cheered on by local schoolchildren illustrates the true potential for good that only sport provides.

The political sphere is working hard with the community and voluntary sector to break the cultural link between alcohol and sport, to foster an appreciation of the value of participation, and to break social, national and racial stereotypes. Leadership must follow from the highest office holders in the FAI, our international players and our public service broadcaster to truly show what sport and particularly football can achieve.

The chorus of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk after the 4-nil defeat by Spain was the highlight of the trip for many and showed the entire tournament what a proud people we are. We owe it to ourselves to build a game for all, to be enjoyed by all, and to lead by example.