Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

GAH Humbug – How You’re Helping the GAA Ruin Your LIfe

September 22, 2013

If you’re of my persuasion (and you’re probably not, unless you’re the sort of reckless maverick who uses parentheses in an opening sentence), Croke Park strikes the eye as a kind of optical illusion. At once monstrously conspicuous – a brusque interruption of a familiar landscape – and curiously invisible, by virtue of one’s utter indifference to everything it represents.

For international readers – Croke Park is the 80,000-seater Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which governs Gaelic Games.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gaelic football, it is essentially an archaic kicking-and-catching code, akin to those played in elite English schools 150 years ago (from which modern football quickly evolved). Its sister sport, hurling, resembles a hybrid of lacrosse and field hockey in which the ball is plucked and volleyed freely.

The common format of the Gaelic Games (amateur players, multiple scoring methods, 70-minute matches) is unrecognisable from those practised at the elite level of sport, and they are better understood as elaborate athletic folk-rituals (along with other regionally popular spectacles such as bullfighting and Morris-dancing). – Dublin Dilettante

It is beyond dispute that football (and there will be no qualification of that term) is the game, indeed the primary cultural outlet, of the global working class. It conquered the world in parallel with the very processes which formed that class, rippling outwards from the British Isles along the earliest currents of globalised capitalism.

Enthusiasm for the game was immediate and uniform, throughout Latin America and Central Europe (except, initially, in Germany, where football was condemned as a malign foreign influence amid a vicious swelling of Teutonic nationalism, but survived and thrived nonetheless).

Curiously, however, those countries which proved most resistant to the game were precisely those which appeared best-placed to assimilate it, by virtue of their cultural ties with Britain.

Even today, football remains institutionally marginalised (though wildly popular amongst much of the general public) in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa is an atypical case, where majority rule has seen football displace rugby union, the sport jealously favoured under Apartheid as an exemplar of disciplined white supremacy.

Football had the misfortune to take the playing field at a time when all these societies were attempting to disentangle themselves from British influence, with varying degrees of urgency. But in order for the native elites of these countries to  preserve their own political and economic power, they needed a forge national identities which did not conflict with existing systems of ownership.

Cultural and ethnic differentiations were a means of short-circuiting the more radical currents of thought which emerged from anti-colonial struggles in the English-speaking world. Sport was a central battlefield in this cultural war, even in those places where the trenches had to be carved from virgin land.

The supposedly ancient Gaelic Games (and how weird is it that a sport should carry a racialising prefix?) were not actually codified until the 1880s; like so many feats of  “national awakening”, this was hailed as an heroic revival rather than an outright contrivance.

From the very outset of Ireland’s independent existence, the Gaelic Athletic Association constituted the sporting wing of the corporatist Irish state, a state which sought to bring all cultural, religious and social institutions under its control while allowing private capital to operate freely.  Gaelic Games were, in effect, the racial purity and brutal simplicity of De Valera’s Gaelic Ireland neatly encased in pigskin.

Professional football is a primarily urban sport in which the club-based structure tends to highlight local class tensions and divisions. Dublin’s clubs have their roots in unambiguously working-class communities such as Inchicore, Phibsboro and Ringsend.

Gaelic Games, by cunning contrast, are contested at the inter-county level (Ireland’s counties being more-or-less arbitrary parcels of land with no distinct socio-economic identity). It’s hardly surprising that this meaningless and unthreatening “county pride” is relentlessly promoted by the Irish media, political class and the massive multinationals which back the GAA to the hilt.

If you’re still not convinced that the GAA’s supposed centrality to Irish life is a political and marketing exercise, attempt the following:

Take a walk through any estate, park, or viable patch of grass in any major urban centre in Ireland. You will see gaggles of children breathlessly kicking, heading and dribbling footballs, just as – if not God, then some happy combination of human biology and human genius surely intended. (Indeed, it’s significant that football involves the head and feet – the organs of thought and dance – whereas catching codes express the acquisitive desire to grasp and manhandle, to fumble with the greasy ball).

By contrast, the only evidence of Gaelic Games you will encounter will be taking place within caged-off reservations festooned with civic and corporate sponsorship, or under strict and peremptory adult supervision.

The Gaelic, Catholic model of nationalism upon which the state was founded has largely fallen into disrepute in recent years. It has been replaced by Ireland Inc., a perverse concept which presents the “favourable business climate” as the bedrock of 21st-century patriotism.

But this novel definition of Ireland as a patchwork of taxation rates and share prices excludes the populace entirely, and makes for a vague and tenuous claim on their allegiance. And so the GAA must continue to be fostered, the atrophied black heart at the centre of the Irish state, the eternal reminder that your ancestors were every bit as unworthy and servile as you are.

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Taxi for Tiki-Taka: The Dialectics of Football

July 22, 2011

I’ve always been relatively ambivalent towards the tiki-taka phenomenon, without ever quite understanding why. Having since puzzled it out, I now realise that simple recourse to onomatopoeia would have saved me a deal of soul-searching. The childlike flippancy of the term itself encapsulates much of my aversion to the style it denotes.

In an era of neo-brutalist vulgarity, in which forwards are equally prized for their defensive as offensive qualities (Tony Grant might have been an unlikely pioneer of the age, had he not abnegated his place in history by scoring freely up-North for Glenavon), Barcelona’s attacking, progressive football is rightly regarded as a breath of fresh of air.

Concessions are made to certain indispensable elements of the Zeitgeist; Barça press hard, but to state that a modern professional football team presses hard is to state that it fields eleven men. The Spanish national team, with the explosive and unquantifiable variable of Lionel Messi excised from the equation, represents arguably the purer strain.

I think I’ve expressed before my preference for the Russo-Ukrainian school of football espoused by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv and USSR teams (they were essentially one and the same). The following is an excerpt from Lobanovskiy’s book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, quoted by Jonathan Wilson in this month’s World Soccer.

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.”

“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game”.

(Thought you’d escaped the politics, didn’t you? Not so fast, motherfucker!)

Attempts to conflate styles of football with the political and cultural environments in which they flourish are invariably tenuous (where they’re not downright mischievous). But Lobanoskiy concocted a style genuinely expressive of egalitarian values; a hard-running, dynamic, counter-attacking game which was exhilarating to watch, all the more so because it was played at such pace (unlike tiki-taka).

In Lobanovskiy’s framework, every member of the team was a potential playmaker. The man in possession, whether he was a full-back, a midfielder or a central defender, was expected to launch the counter-attack with a single long pass to a free player as soon as the opponent relinquished the ball. Likewise, everyone was expected to chase down possession with equal fervour.

This is where the crucial cleavage between the Russo-Ukrainian school (faint echoes of which survive in Eastern Europe today) and tiki-taka becomes apparent. Lobanovskiy strove for constant movement of both ball and man. In his eyes, a player who could release the ball and then receive it back in the same position wasn’t working hard enough.

The Barça model lacks that kind of rigorous humility and a certain amount of, as it were, Dynamism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Barcelona won the Champions League, and I’m glad Spain won the World Cup. But they are teams to be admired, not teams to be loved. They neither aspire to, nor are capable of attaining, the sublime (except in the person of Messi). Rather, their holy grail is the achievement of absolute technical competence, like a backroom of IT geeks, or Fleetwood Mac.

A small, blackened corner of my heart drew immense satisfaction from Barcelona’s defeat to Inter in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final (as dismayed as I am by any outcome which burnishes Mourinho’s reputation).

Barcelona showed up at San Siro expecting to pass rings around a flat-footed collection of South American has-beens, cast as the Washington Generals for one night only. Instead, Guardiola’s side visibly wilted in the face of a fearsome fusillade of passionate, attacking football which cut them down to size. Their self-satisfied arrogance had blinded them to the dialectic of the game; they had no response.

One could make the claim that FC Barcelona’s success has given contemporary Europe the champion it deserves; a technocratic elite, backed by big money, which parades across the continent beneath the banner of UNICEF in a false posture of social solidarity.

21st Century Balls

August 14, 2010

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Happened upon that advertising gif on an image-hosting site recently. A particularly pernicious piece of work, I’m sure you’ll agree. It reminded me of an article I read about the ProZone video analysis system used by top football clubs. Whereas many punters imagine that the software is primarily used to track positioning, passing range and so forth, the feature which most appeals to management is the ability to measure frequency, intensity and duration of sprints.

This is especially useful, the company spokesman proudly proclaimed, for identifying players who are concealing an injury from the medical staff. I wonder how long it will be before we see systems like this used in manual labour workplaces (if they’re not already.)

While I’m on the subject of football and technology (and by no means desperately trying to pad this post), I was dismayed to read that FIFA have capitulated to the baying of the tabloids and agreed to re-examine the use of goal-line and/or video technology. The main culprit in this perversion of football is the British media, with its politics-of-the-last-atrocity refusal to accept that shit happens and interferes with the digestion of armchair fans in wealthy countries from time to time.

Equally distressing are The Blatter’s comments about restructuring the group phase of the World Cup to discourage negativity:

Sepp Blatter says Fifa is considering scrapping draws at the group stage of future World Cup finals by introducing penalty shoot-outs after 90 minutes.

Blatter, president of world football’s governing body, is known for voicing radical ideas on changing the game.

He wants to put an end to defence-minded teams playing to get a draw.

“If there is no winner at the end of 90 minutes of play, we would proceed directly to penalty kicks,” he told German magazine Focus.

Yes. That’ll fucking work, won’t it? Instead of encouraging teams to think that if they stick ten men behind the ball they might nick a point, encourage them to think that if they stick ten men behind the ball they might nick three points (without even having to score off a set-piece, Rehhagel-stylee.)

Oh, and…

Another possibility, according to Blatter, would be to revive the “golden goal”.

We don’t even need to embark upon hypotheticals here, we know what happened last time this idiotic rule was implemented. Far from encouraging attacking play, it made everyone shit-scared of conceding in extra time and determined to cling on for the dubious refuge of penalties.

A heartwarming tale

June 30, 2010

Once upon a time, in a sleepy land at the bottom of the world, lived Little Johnny. Little Johnny was a nasty, opportunistic white bigot who spent his entire career fostering prejudice against Asians and black people, when he wasn’t paying young men to kill Muslims.

All this became a little tiring after a while, and, having attained his three-score-and-ten, our hero decided to put his feet up by taking a nice, comfortable job, free from the stresses of full-time bigotry and butchery.

Here our tale takes an ugly turn, for the job Little Johnny chose involved lording it over large numbers of Asians, black people and Muslims. Who smartly told him to go fuck himself, much to the dismay of Little Johnny’s friends and the liberal media.

The moral of the story is that the victims and the villains aren’t always who you think they are.

Kicking Against DPRK

June 10, 2010

I don’t have much time for the totalitarian/militaristic/nationalistic stylings of the North Korean regime. Most on the left share my distaste, although, like the pornography industry, there’s a niche group to cater for every perversion.

Nonetheless, the lazy, reflexive, shibboleth-laden coverage given to the participation of the DPRK football team at the forthcoming World Cup is getting on my Eklands. When combined with the slavish, philistine gushing over Brazilian football which is so typical of the British sporting press, the annoyance dial cranks up to CRITICAL. Behold:

The images projected by the two nations are similarly far apart.

Brazil is synonymous with an unfettered joy of expression, illustrated perhaps most vividly down the years by its football team.

Think of North Korea, however, and thoughts instinctively turn to a political regime, whose military spending and belligerent foreign policy earned them a place alongside Iraq and Iran in former United States president George W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

Well, not really. There was a time, in living memory, when to freely express oneself in Brazil meant to end up very much fettered, if not very much dead. Secondly, everyone knows that the only reason North Korea made Bush’s Most Wanted list was to disguise the religious crusading nature of the War on Terror.

These perfunctory slanders will be familiar to anyone whose memory extends to the late 1980s, and the heyday of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev/USSR teams (they were effectively one and the same.) Lobanovskyi’s teams played a pulsating, swift counter-attacking style of football in which every member of the side was a potential playmaker. In many ways, it was a precursor to the tikki-takki house style for which Barcelona and Spain are lauded today, although played at a faster pace and more exhilarating to watch.

Of course, that wasn’t how the Western press saw it. Instead, they wrote of automatons, who knew what to do with the ball before they received it, doubtless as a result of harsh, repetitive, military-style training (as opposed to having their intelligence and technique honed by the scientific coaching methods of Lobanovskyi.) It was somewhat of a blow to this thesis when Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev and Romantsev’s Spartak Moscow sides retained and refined this style long into the capitalist age.

So, for all that the constant evocations of the Dear Leader by the coaching staff irk me, and the archaic 5-3-2 system offers little hope, I hope North Korea do well at the World Cup. It will offer the beleaguered people of that nation some little solace (and yes, they will see and/or find out about the results) and piss off a lot of people I don’t like.

If nothing else, it might put a stop to stuff like this:

Their domestic media were described as “so suppressed they are non-existent” by campaign group Reporters Without Borders and the few interviews that have appeared from inside the squad have been full of cliches.

Take a moment to savour the rich, delectable irony of that last bit, bearing in mind that it comes from the BBC’s dumbed-down-to-death football department. If North Korea’s players deal in clichés because they come from a totalitarian dictatorship, what’s the England squad’s excuse? Maybe Juche is the state ideology of Soho Square. It might explain how Eriksson kept his job for so long…

The Joy of Thursday

May 6, 2010

Much too angry about the shit going down in the country (especially this) to post anything coherent, so I decided to make an humorous video about Paul Doolin to take my mind off it.

UUP: “Hands off southern trade unions!”

March 15, 2010

This is more Splintered Sunrise’s province than mine (pun diplomatically unintended), but the Republic’s increasingly assailed trade unions found an unlikely champion this weekend, in the form of UUP councillor (and twice Lord Mayor of Belfast) Jim Rodgers.

Rodgers, in his capacity as a director of Glentoran F.C., rightfully took exception to Garda heavy-handedness at Saturday’s Setanta Sports Cup fixture between his side and Bohemians at Dalymount Park.

Our august Guardians of the Peace reportedly took exception to attempts on the part of someone in the sizeable travelling support to erect a Northern Ireland flag in the Des Kelly stand. By “erect”, they presumably mean “drape over the hoardings”, although the sight of a boozed-up Nordie casual shinning up the flagpole at the end of the Jodi stand would have been one for the scrapbook.

Quoth Cllr. Rodgers:

“I would have to point the finger at the policing, which left a lot to be desired,” he said.

“We’ve seen it before with Linfield fans. Instead of operating a sensible policing policy, they go at it like a bull in a china shop, it doesn’t help community relations.

“The Garda Siochana need specialist training in how to handle crowds. We see it with trade union demonstrations down south, they seem to overreact.”

Give the chap a fucking cigar, he’s spot-on on every score. In addition to which, he deftly avoided mentioning the Love Ulster débâcle. Any chance of shipping him off to the front line in the War on Plunder out west?

Speaking of overreactions, the story as viewed through the psychedelic prism of the Evening Herald is barely recognisable.

The Herald witnessed first hand how gangs aligned to the East Belfast club spread an air of menace and hate in and around the Phibsboro area.

As tens of thousands of rugby fans spilled out of nearby Croke Park following Ireland’s fantastic win against Wales, hordes of Northern soccer fans were intent on creating havoc less than a mile away.

This newspaper also saw how gardai tried to defuse the situation by operating a friendly attitude with aggressive Glentoran supporters.

Officials from the Belfast club said they were unhappy at the use of the dogs and the speed with which the Public Order Unit was brought in. Five men, all Glentoran fans and all in their 30s and 40s, were charged for public order offences and appeared in court this morning after being released on bail.

Three of the men were arrested shortly after the kick off in the game with the other two Glentoran fans being arrested before the game. It is believed that the skirmishes within the ground started when Glentoran supporters were prevented from erecting a Northern Ireland flag, an act seen by many as one of open provocation.

Leaving aside all Baudrillardian cogitations on whether it’s possible to see an act in a particular light if the act did not take place, the indignation evinced at the fact that these working-class thugs were practically breathing the same air as the rugger buggers exiting Croke Park is telling. I mean, little Tiernán could have heard a Northside accent or positively anything.

Anyway, four Glensmen got their collars felt and were up before Judge Cormac Dunne this afternoon. Everyone got the Probation Act and went home, which can’t but cast doubt on the submitted statement that a defendant ‘became “abusive and extremely violent to gardaí, staff and security working at the venue.”’ If he’d been “extremely violent” to anyone, least of all a Guard, he wouldn’t be going home with a smack on the wrist and a note for mother.

Actually, the only flag on display which offended me was that ridiculous little tricolour which Bohs have been sporting on the back of their collars for the past few years. Not only is it gratuitously jingoistic, but it clashes horrendously with their beautiful red and black stripes.

PS: This post was going to be a delayed reaction to the Blueshirt Blueprint, but I see WorldByStorm is all over it on CLR. It’s an interesting gambit, but why does it remind me of this?

The loser takes it all

February 14, 2010

Ireland vs. Netherlands (Cricinfo via ICC)

Yesterday brought good news and better news for followers of Irish cricket. The good news was that Ireland trounced the Netherlands by 65 runs in Dubai to qualify for this spring’s World Twenty20 championships in the West Indies. The better news was that Ireland subsequently succumbed by eight wickets to Afghanistan in the final.

Why is this good news? Simply because the runners-up of the Associate qualifying competition have already been allocated to Group D of the final tournament, where the company (the limited-overs-challenged England and ever-brittle West Indies) is rather more congenial than that offered to the leading qualifiers in Group C (where Afghanistan will face South Africa and India.)

A fourth defeat in five recent encounters with the fast-rising Afghans may stick in the craw, but the publicity bonanza of a fixture against England and a genuine chance of progression will delight the Pangloss of the Pavillions, Cricket Ireland’s ever-optimistic CEO Warren Deutrom.

So firm is the Englishman’s faith in the future of the Irish game that Cricket Ireland recently submitted an “expression of intent” to apply for Full Member status to the International Cricket Council, although this was an act borne more of frustrated desperation than of optimism. Trapped between the glass window of hegemony at Associate level (now challenged by Afghanistan) and the brick wall of insularity at domestic level, Deutrom took the only option open to him; he forced a response from the ICC, in the hope of forestalling the stagnation and decline which befell the similarly-disposed Kenyans in the late nineties.

That response finally came to my attention last Thursday, via the indispensable Munster Cricket Blog.

“Following Cricket Ireland’s expression of intent to apply for Full or Enhanced Membership of the ICC, the Board has approved a three-step process recommended by the Governance Review Committee which begins with a review of categories of Membership.

When that work has been completed and consideration has been given to the process for dealing with applications, Cricket Ireland’s application for Full or Enhanced Membership of the ICC will be formally considered.”

It’s difficult to imagine how that statement could have been worded any less meaningfully, and it’s not exactly a pulse-pumper. It is, after all, a cursory declaration of an indefinite assessment period, preliminary to a formal process of consideration and pursuant to an expression of intent. But the bureaucratic wheels have been set in motion, and Deutrom’s chutzpah has kept the question of Ireland’s membership status bleeping healthily on the ICC’s radar.

All they have to do to keep it there in the interim is to keep winning and fell the occasional giant. That, however, has ceased to be the uncomplicated affair it was only last year. Not all is well in the cricketing department, as evinced by Ireland’s performances in the Twenty20 qualifiers. Yes, Ireland won three of their six games emphatically, but two of those were against Scotland and the Netherlands, teams in terminal decline, and the third against a side – the USA – which shouldn’t have been there at all, promoted miles above its capability by an ICC always eager to nurture lucrative new markets (though they still beat Scotland.)

The retirement of off-spinner Kyle McCallan, a stifler of batsmen of all standards, has deprived the attack of critical control, and the jury remains out upon the young captain William Porterfield. Although unquestionably a fine opening batsman, Porterfield is a youthful non-bowler in a team of veteran all-rounders; it’s little wonder his field settings are of questionable quality.

One consistently worrying feature of the recent campaign was the vulnerability of a middle order suffused with alleged all-rounders. Among their number are Andy White (a batsman who can bowl a little), Alex Cusack (who can bat well and bowl superbly, but never in the same game), André Botha (a batting bowler who has forgotten how to bat), Kevin O’Brien (a bowling batsman who has forgotten how to do either) and John Mooney (who doesn’t bowl anymore but can probably claim to be the only specialist no. 9 batsman in international cricket.)

The feebleness of the middle order was consistently offset by the meaty opening partnerships of Porterfield and Niall O’Brien, and the quiet but quick-scoring efficiency of Gary Wilson. I have no explanation for the absence of the apparently uninjured prodigy Paul Stirling after the first game, but nothing stays secret for long in Irish cricket.

Trent Johnston, bowling off a shoulder now held together entirely by prayer and force of habit, took eight wickets at ten apiece. Not even he can continue indefinitely, however, and with Boyd Rankin seldom fit when available and seldom available when fit, Ireland’s ability to threaten with the new ball is seriously compromised. Peter Connell is a serviceable replacement at Associate level, but lacks the pace and guile to discommode Test batsmen.

One shining shaft of sunlight amidst the gathering gloom, however, is the emergence of Leinster left-arm spinner George Dockrell. The 17-year-old turned heads in the warm-up fixtures but took some serious tap in the tournament proper, twice going for more than ten an over. Phil Simmons is to be commended for persevering with the youngster, and was rewarded with a return of 4-20 in the decisive game against the Netherlands.

Such patient handling will hopefully prevent Dockrell from going the way of Greg Thompson, the young legspinner (and Lisburn clubmate of Alastair Ross MLA) who melted from the scene, switched to bowling off-breaks, and whose international career is long behind him at 22. Regan West will do well to recover from a serious shoulder injury before Dockrell nails down the slow left armers’ spot. A pity, because watching the hulking West daintily tweak his spinners like a wrestler serving tea from the good china is one of the more incongruous sights in cricket (and, moreover, he’s an excellent bowler.)

So why the impending generation gap when Ireland’s under-age teams are so relentlessly dominant at European level? The answer to that question is one that requires a more definite response than the despatch of speculative applications to ICC HQ, and one which Deutrom has not yet had the courage to address. Namely, the structure of domestic cricket.

From top to bottom, it’s a shambles. The closest thing Ireland has to an all-island championship is the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup, a limited-overs knockout competition. A small island of some five million people supports (after a fashion) not one, nor two, but three senior cricket unions, each with its own leagues and cups, and two of which are based in Northern Ireland. Parochialism consistently trumps progress in an environment which sees internationals (those who haven’t been meekly surrendered to county cricket without any serious effort made to keep them at home) compete against and alongside recreational dabblers more concerned with knocking back pints than knocking down stumps.

Progress in Irish cricket comes in two flavours; glacial and half-baked. Adi Birrell’s blueprint for Leinster cricket, adopted for the 2010 season by the LCU, partook generously of the latter. Under the new dispensation, the convoluted Senior/Junior/Intermediate grading system has been abolished and replaced by a classic Irish fudge. Teams – even reserve teams – can now move freely between the thirteen divisions (with The Hills 2nds beginning in Division 2.) Cork County have been admitted to the league (good) but permitted to play only away fixtures (bad.) Both they and the anachronism that is Trinity’s semi-seasonal senior team will have their final points tallies calculated by mathematical formula. An Irish solution to an Irish problem if ever there was.

Indeed, one of the more quixotic aspects of Deutrom’s Full Membership gambit was the overlooked fact that a viable, First Class-ready domestic structure is a pre-requisite for Test status. In applying for Full Membership, Deutrom was cheerfully dragging the cart in his wake, while the horse remained stubbornly stationary. Until a determined effort is made to introduce a credible interprovincial axis to Irish cricket, Deutrom’s entreaties will be rightly dismissed at the top table. If doing so means trampling on local sensibilities in Northern Ireland and hauling the game out of its torpid middle-class pints ‘n’ pavillions milieu in Leinster, then so be it.