Image via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr user hr.icio.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr user hr.icio.
Some weeks ago, The Classical sent a recording angel to Ireland to gauge the country's mood ahead of its national team's participation in Euro 2012. Its results were curious. Compared to previous similar endeavours, the nation was somewhat underwhelmed. Indeed, it was almost as if it was using the memory of past benign hysteria in order to talk itself into the requisite state of whelmedness. Now that Ireland's opening fixture looms (against Croatia in Poznań on Sunday), passions are just about beginning to stir. Tens of thousands of fans are heading to Poland, which will make Ireland one of the best supported teams on the ground. Back home, tricolours are sprouting from houses and telephone poles, and that whoreson Optimism and his hideous cousin Hope are making our acquaintance once more. It's not quite The Old Days, but there's still blood in those veins.
There are reasons to be grateful that these are not The Old Days, not least because the last time we made it to a major tournament, stuff happened at precisely the time you want it to snooze unseen in the corner of the room. This time, stuff is what's happening to other people. A couple of weeks ago, Ireland arrived at training camp in Tuscany to be greeted by a civic reception and Miss Italy. The Italian team were greeted at their base by the cops, who effectively took their left-back away. Several members of the Ukrainian squad contracted food poisoning. And, as usual, England's long-suffering followers are being put through a pre-tournament mangling. They can't decide whether the fact that they have such low expectations might actually raise expectations, the undoubtedly negative consequences of which might in turn lower expectations again, which might et cetera and so forth. (Et Cetera and So Forth would be a good name for a history of the England team since 1966.) Their defence is to be led by a man who may or may not have racially abused the brother of another English central defender, and that other central defender was left out of the squad even after Gary Cahill had to withdraw, even though said other central defender is good enough to be in the squad, provided you ask the right person. And as if all that wasn't bad enough, Stewart Downing's in the squad.
Yes, in general, all things considered and all paranoid fantasies unfulfilled, things have proceeded pretty serenely for the Irish. There was, however, one little wrinkle—something that illuminated more than would initially appear, like sunlight streaming through a tiny scratch in the eclipse glasses you used to watch the transit of Venus, lasering your retina. Giovanni Trapattoni, our Glorious Leader, named his final, ultimate, definitively definite 23-man squad three weeks ahead of the deadline, even though he could have named a larger provisional squad at first, and trimmed it when the time came. Unfortunately, as training for the tournament began, it became apparent that several center-backs were carrying injuries, making them doubtful for the finals. Playing it safe, Trapattoni called Paul McShane into the squad on deadline day. The player to make way was Kevin Foley.
When Trap named his final, ultimate, definitively definite 23-man squad, he had also nominated five backups, of which McShane was one. But Foley wasn't one of the injured players. In other words, because of other players' injuries, Foley fell out of the pack in the reshuffle. There was a practical side to this: McShane could cover at center-back, whereas Foley couldn't. In fact, there was nothing but a practical side to it. Which suited Trapattoni. But Foley went from thinking that he was finally, ultimately, definitively definitely in the squad to being out altogether. Trap had handed Foley his greatest accolade and then ripped it away from him. History doesn't record whether he kneed him in the groin as he did so, but either way, Foley said he'd felt "betrayed" by Trapattoni.
Really, it was a minor matter: Trap had just swapped one fringe player for another. It's unlikely to be the difference between success and failure, and it will end up as a footnote in Ireland's Euro story. Nor was it a complete surprise that he should see a player as expendable in this way: he's never seemed very impressed by the players available to him with Ireland anyway. One is as good as the next. "I ask you ... Paul McShane, he’s an Irish player? Or a foreign player? You understand me?," he said the next day, typically exasperated at being pressed on the matter. "I called another Irish player so I don’t see the problem." Business is business.
As with Trap, so with the Irish public. There was sympathy for Foley, but it was limited. It was a shame for the lad and all, but this is football; these things happen. Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent wrote that such fuss as there was over the issue "implied a pretty breath-taking national immaturity" (itself a pretty breath-taking statement). Ken Early of radio station Newstalk noted that he had listeners telling him and his kind to stop going on about it: did he not hear Trap say the case was "finished, finished, finished"? We're all on a mission: this is no time for extraneous thought.
As I say, a minor matter, but one that speaks to a larger truth. It's not the player that's our avatar on the field—it's the jersey. The player might be what animates the shirt, but he is subservient to it, and therefore to us. Our affection for the player is in large part contingent on how useful he is to us. What he does is for the glory of the shirt. We celebrate the achievements of the players, but we're really celebrating the jersey. The jersey is the inanimate carbon rod of sport.
This goes for any team, but it's multiplied for a national team. Of course, the fanbases of some clubs are almost inchoate nations of their own, and some clubs claim to represent a nation to some degree, such as Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and (as their fans have found out to their cost) Cardiff City. But national teams are explicit representatives of nations, and so get loaded with the nation's hang-ups and self-aggrandisement. Someone doesn't just play for a national team—they play for their country. We build up the honour of playing for your country, but when the player has the shirt taken away from him, he mustn't have the nerve to be too upset about it. (Because, as Hogan says, "He's just facing the awful prospect of an extra three weeks off with his family, probably in some affluent resort where there's champagne with the buffet breakfast." Well, there you go, then, Kev.)
This is what makes international football so fascinating. The teams are on the one hand an additional branch of the armed forces, and on the other just bloody sports teams—their own units with their own dynamics, units populated by people of varying histories, motivations and make-ups, some of which is unrelated to the expectations of their millions of compatriots, some of which is very much related. In a twisted sort of way, it's entire nations stepping onto the international stage, hoping to glorify themselves, or at the very least not lose face. And they're dependent for this on a small group of human beings. Sometimes the players willl be able to bear the burden so well that they can transcend the daft kids' game they make a living from. Other times they won't, and the whole thing will collapse into logic.
A major soccer tournament is of course very much about the soccer, and there will, please the gods, be a "feast of football", that rumour which is sometimes made shockingly real. But that type of thing is capricious and often elusive. National neurosis is forever, and the European Championship can compact it until it bursts all over our screens. Bring a mop.