IN IRELAND, the land of a hundred thousand misconceptions, a fear exists in GAA circles that the qualification of our soccer team for Euro 2012 finals could result in dampening enthusiasm for the hurling and football championships.
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They needn’t worry. While there is little doubt the country will experience a temporary flood of emigrants in June – men and women who otherwise could find their way to Clones or Croker, Tuam or Thurles – the notion that this could lead a permanent swaying of minds from one sport to another is false.
The reality is that – with the exception of fundamentalists – fans happily jump from one sport to another. And so the man who wears a Manchester United shirt in February can swap it for a Kerry one in July. That’s modern Ireland.
Notwithstanding the fact that the success of the national team in Italia 90 resulted in a broadening of the support base beyond the traditional heartlands and into areas where Kevin Doyle (Wexford), Shane Long (Tipperary) and Seamus Coleman (Killybegs) could forego their promising GAA careers for soccer ones, the truth is that these are rare examples.
So while the GAA may suffer a crisis of confidence, and may need to increase its marketing spend to allow for the unusual appearance of Ireland in a major finals, to assuage their fears of a desertion of their flock to another church, all they have to do is look at the attendance figures at their games, and the television audiences their All-Ireland finals generate, to realise their paranoia is unjustified.
In 2010, for example, two sporting occasions made RTE’s list of top 10 most-watched programmes, the All-Ireland hurling final, which was the second most popular programme and the All-Ireland football final, which came 10th on the list. Soccer failed to break into the top 10, the 2010 World Cup final reaching 11th spot. That doesn’t sound like a crisis to anyone.
Nor does the fact that the Aviva Stadium has yet to be sold out for a soccer international since its re-opening whereas Dublin’s appearance in September’s All-Ireland final caused a ticket demand that bordered on chaos.
And beyond all this lies the superior structure of the GAA’s club championships. Divided county by county – an ancient boundary that every person in the country can identify with – they must look at soccer’s complicated league structure and laugh. Firstly, the GAA championships have a lengthier history. Secondly they breed local rivalries – which can also result in unhealthy tribalism – but which boosts attendances. Against this, soccer’s leagues regularly cross county boundaries, thereby diluting their importance to locals.
Of course, you only have to look at the demise of the Catholic Church and Fianna Fail to realise that no institution is infallible but the fact the GAA has modernised beyond belief in the last two decades is proof that it not only moves with the times but is, occasionally, ahead of them.
What they cannot provide, though, is an international outlet for their supporters, aside from the unappealing Compromise Rules series. And so next June, Gdansk, a city with a history of unwelcome invaders will be occupied by the most benign and good-natured army anyone has ever seen. A carnival atmosphere and endless party is expected. The GAA may not be invited. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have a meaningful celebration of their own. The two weekends in September, reserved for the conclusion of the hurling and football championships, are never quiet. Nor will they ever be.