WORDS: SEAN DUFFY
The “sing-songs” of the Irish supporters in Poland highlighted the opportunity this tournament presented for cultures to come together and people to unite. For some of those who shared in the experience, it was hard to stomach accusations of a “win or lose, we’re on the booze” attitude…
Image: umbrofootball (via Flickr)
Recriminations were inevitable following Ireland’s humbling at Euro 2012. A team that somehow miraculously qualified for a major tournament for the first time in 10 years was ruthlessly exposed by superior opposition and ultimately exited the tournament, widely regarded one of the poorest ever to compete at a European Championships.
The morning after the defeat to Spain, which ensured Ireland’s elimination, supporters who had travelled from across the globe to support the team were trying to digest their collective disappointment. Quickly, news filtered through about Roy Keane’s comments. Keane had asserted that the Irish supporters needed a change of mentality; that in essence they were only concerned with the “sing-song”. Losing to Croatia and Spain was one thing, but taking lectures from Roy Keane on standards of behaviour at an international tournament was a sleight too far. It would be an amusing irony if it weren’t so utterly insulting.
Nonetheless, Keane’s comments invariably gained traction in some quarters, with the Irish Times last week labelling the support of the Irish fans as a type of “win or lose, we’re on the booze” culture. Of course, with Keane, speaking bluntly has become something of a trademark. The problem with his inherent desire to “call it as he sees it” is that he so frequently fails to see the bigger picture.
What Keane may have failed to understand when listening to ‘The Fields of Athenry’ at the PGE Arena in Gdansk was that there was a far more significant expression of culture at play here. A vast percentage of the supporters who travelled to this tournament had arrived in Poland from places such as Cagliari, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco and New York.
For a generation that has had the rug pulled from underneath them, seeking work away from Ireland has become the norm. Families have been left behind, friends’ weddings have been missed, the births of nieces and nephews celebrated through the medium of Skype. For many of the Irish Diaspora, emigration has brought opportunities now not possible at home. However, with those opportunities has come a heavy heart, a palpable sense of displacement and a longing for that which is familiar.
As one supporter put it: “I have travelled 10,000 miles to be here, spent over 30 hours on planes, saved up my wages every week for six months and now I have to go back halfway across the world again in a few days time. I’ll fucking sing if I want.”
Similarly, for supporters travelling to this tournament from home, Euro 2012 has offered a beaming light on what is a bleak horizon. It is difficult, in Ireland, not to become weighed down by the weight of bad news, the endless reinforcement of how terrible the situation is and how unlikely it is to improve. For many, this trip offered a modicum of escapism, a chance for a couple of weeks at least, to throw off the shackles of austerity and attempt to rediscover some joy in the face of pervasive pessimism.
The Irish people have been let down at every juncture by the establishment in recent years. Banks, developers and politicians have conspired to turn a period of unparalleled prosperity into a time of grave anxiety for many citizens. That anxiety is felt most acutely by the loved ones of those who have had to leave. Grandmothers wondering if they will get to see Grandsons again; mothers worried if their sons are eating well enough. Are they drinking too much?
Of course there is an obvious issue at play as to whether the Irish as a nation drink too much. That alcohol is so imbued into the fabric of our society is regrettable on many levels, and is surely worth examining in more depth. Yet surely that is a job for the sociologists and historians, not Roy Keane.
Sadly enough, it appears the behaviour of Irish supporters in Poland has become synonymous with the actions of the FAI’s CEO John Delaney. Delaney has been seen on YouTube and in photos in varying degrees of dishevelment, giving slurred speeches to supporters and necking shots at various locations around Poland. It would be a great tragedy if those who were not there were to equate this behaviour with that of all Irish fans. For many fans – this writer included – the manner of the defeats suffered were some of the most painful moments ever experienced, which no amount of alcohol could ever alleviate.
The true Irish supporters decided to come together in unison, to express pride in themselves and their culture at a time when being Irish and what that means has become increasingly confusing. Perhaps a sing-song was our last refuge. It may well be the case, but it provided a timely and comforting one to those who chose to embrace it. To cheapen the contribution of the Irish fans in Poland as some kind of drink-induced Paddy-Whackery is to ultimately overlook what is great and good about the Irish.
Wit, charm and a slice of self-deprecation completely beguiled the Polish hosts, to the extent that there were tearful goodbyes said between locals and Irish fans in Poznan before the final game against Italy. Of course they were appreciative of the wedge of the Irish wallet, but moreover were delighted that the Irish had had such a wonderful time in their country, and had chosen to so vociferously support their country as a second team. The chants of ‘Polska bialo czerwoni‘ being bellowed between Irish and Polish fans in the aftermath of the Polish draw with Russia was as memorable a moment as any football supporter is likely to witness. It exemplified what is great about football.
It highlighted the opportunity for different cultures to come together and express mutual appreciation, to share in the experience and even to form lasting friendships. In the wake of defeat to Italy, it was a bittersweet moment for friends saying farewell.
“Will you be home for Christmas?” I asked one friend.
He looked at his shoes with a type of sad resignation.
“No, I went last Christmas and that was my first time back in three years. So I’d say it will be at least another three years before you see me again.”
Then a smile spread across his face. “Although if we make it to Brazil… you never know.”
If you ask any of the Irish fans in Poland in 20 years time what their recollection of the year 2012 was, you can be sure they will not tell you about mortgage arrears, being unemployed, longing for home or trying to find their way in the world. They will not tell you about John Delaney or Roy Keane. Instead they will tell you about two weeks in June, when it was a joy to be Irish, and when a citizenry divided by economics and geography united, and sang together as one.