PATRICK WEST says Irish football fans shouldn’t be cheering on England come the World Cup—and it has nothing to do with Anglo-Irish relations
It has become a vexed biennial question of recent years: with Ireland having failed to qualify, should the Irish instead lend their support to England in a major soccer tournament?
Among right-thinking people, the answer to this query is usually 'yes'. The consensus seems to be that in doing so, the Irish people would be displaying maturity and confidence - in happy contradistinction to the petty and anachronistic nationalism that poisoned Anglo-Irish relations in the second half of the twentieth century. 'The "English" are a close neighbour and friend and their country is home to seven million Irish who are almost certainly England supporters,' wrote one correspondent to the Irish Independent four years ago. 'The year is 2006, not 1798 or 1916, and the English always support the Republic. Many people in the Republic do support England, as reflected in the BBC's large share of the TV audience (170,000) from the Republic.'
It would also demonstrate that Ireland no longer has an inferiority complex. This was a prominent theme made especially after 1996, when the Republic of Ireland's GDP per capita overtook the UK's, and in the subsequent era of the 'Celtic Tiger'. 'Years ago the reason given for such unsporting churlishness was "the 800 years of misery and oppression".' wrote Carol Hunt in the Sunday Independent in 2006. 'But nationalism is about as fashionable as socialism to the new Celtic Tiger generation. Even the GAA, that bastion of anti-English sentiment, has had to relent and admit that times have changed.'
Yet, I can't help feeling that people who forward such arguments don't really understand football. By this, I don't mean the technicalities of the sport itself, but its ritualistic role in society and culture. Although I have an Irish mother and hold an Irish passport, I am culturally English and mostly call myself an Englishman. However, were I full a Irishman, I would dearly be hoping Fabio Capello's men a swift and disgraceful exit from the World Cup in South Africa.
This is because football is not properly real life. At least, it occupies a strange no man's land between reality and fiction. It is theatre without script. Roland Barthes made a similar point about wrestling half a century ago, yet it still irritates me to hear football illiterates bemoan the torrents of abuse and invective they hear from the terraces of soccer stadiums. Synthetic hatred is intrinsic to the ritual, and hating your local rivals is an elementary component to the system. 'Your going to get your fucking head kicked in' is a completely different statement when chanted on the terraces as opposed to said to a bypasser on the streets - just as punching a stranger in the face is acceptable in the boxing ring and unacceptable outside it.
Asking the Irish to back England is akin to expecting Manchester City fans to support Manchester United in the Champions League final. Sporting ignoramuses don't comprehend the notion of ersatz hatred - nor the idea that in sport familiarity breeds not solidarity but contempt. Those who employ the argument that 'England and Ireland share so much common culture, history and blood ties in opposition to continental Europeans' might as well ask Rangers fans to cheer on Celtic on account of both sides sharing a Scottish culture.
A similar argument goes that because many English people cheer on Ireland as a second team (which was manifest acutely on my side of the Irish Sea during the 1994 World Cup finals), wouldn't it be polite to return the favour? This misses the point that England are a bigger side. For instance, there are many fans of Chelsea who would likewise patronisingly lend their support to their smaller west-London neighbours Brentford should they ever embark on an (unlikely) successful FA Cup run. But Brentford fans would be unlikely to reciprocate automatically. They certainly wouldn't do so towards more highly-placed West London sides such as Fulham or Queen's Park Rangers - the hatred Brentford fans possess towards them is not mutually felt. The truth is that when an Englishman declares his support for the Republic of Ireland, he is metaphorically patting dear old Paddy on the head.
Of course, you can not divorce politics and history from football. Those who urge the Irish to back England are acting in commendable sincerity, in that they would like to see the relative calm in the North in the last 12 years mirrored among sports-loving spectators in the pubs and bars of Ireland. But that misses the whole point: confusing football with politics is the chief fallacy. That was the problem with the GAA for decades, and same the reason why Lansdowne Road was vandalised in 1995 by some far-Right English morons.
Essentially, mistaking football for reality is a categorical error (which, incidentally, is why the Eurovision Song Contest is in such a comparable mess). This is the mistake soccer hooligans make, who interpret defeat on a sports field to represent some slight on their character, area or tribe. It's the same fallacy made by those who send hatemail to the likes of Neil Lennon or Sol Campbell for having the temerity to sign for the 'wrong' side, or got David Beckham's lapse of judgment in the 1998 World Cup so wholly out of proportion. Indeed, we witnessed a comparable outburst after Thierry Henry's 'goal' last November which sent sections of Ireland into spasms of Francophobia. If much of it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a great deal of the reaction was disproportionate and bizarre - akin to my countrymen's reaction to that 'goal' by Maradona in 1986.
So it's a bit ironic that well-meaning commentators in Ireland now do the same every two years. Let's not take real-life pantomime too seriously. Football is only a game. Which is why I hope and expect you will be praying for England's ignominious downfall in South Africa later this month.
Patrick West is author of Beating Them At Their Own Game: How The Irish Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006)