Sport divides and is like war without the killing


Take the heavy police presence from most football matches and something approaching a mini-war would result, writes DAVID ADAMS

WHO WOULD ever have thought it possible: the Republic displays overwhelming pride in a Protestant boxer, and this is matched by how obviously honoured the boxer is to represent her country; a Catholic Northern Irish manager of Liverpool FC consistently refers to his homeland as Northern Ireland (and insists on being described as Northern Irish); and a young two-time major winning golfer from the North publicly embraces both the British and Irish aspects of his background.

Isn’t sport a great healer? No it isn’t. In fact, almost the complete opposite is the case.

Sport, as much if not more than politics, is war by other means. Indeed, absent the heavy police presence from most high-profile football matches and something approaching a mini-war would be the result.

The two Glasgow football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, have played one another 399 times since their first official meeting in 1888. Yet after 124 years there still isn’t any evidence of divisions being healed and old hatreds disappearing.

Wrong city, perhaps. Manchester’s football clubs aren’t subject to the same kind of incendiary mix of religions, politics and ethnicities as those of Glasgow, so one might expect football supporters from that city to be less tribally aggressive. Unfortunately, one would be disappointed.

The other week, when Manchester United played Everton, the bulk of the Manchester supporters spent the entire game chanting and singing obscenities about people from Liverpool in general, and most especially about 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

It should be noted that relations between the fans of Everton and Manchester United are regarded as good, at least in comparison to the hatred many followers of Manchester United and Liverpool have for one another.

Wrong sport, perhaps. Soccer, after all, draws most of its participants and support from the unsophisticated lower social classes – or so it is generally assumed.

What about Gaelic sports? Not much in the way of crowd trouble there, admittedly, if you ignore the occasional referee or umpire being hospitalised by an irate spectator. And we can disregard the bigoted chants of some spectators (a flavour of which was provided in this newspaper the other day by the courageous Dónal Óg Cusack).

Still, there is no denying that Gaelic supporters, by and large, are much better behaved than their soccer counterparts. This, like the even better behaved crowds that rugby attracts, might have something to do with numbers, or lack thereof. Taken together, the two Uniteds, Manchester and Newcastle, probably attract more fans to their weekend home games than Gaelic and rugby manage across the whole of Ireland.

By definition, the bigger the crowds the more antisocial people are going to be among them. Numbers may be a factor in the relatively good behaviour of the fans of some sports, but perhaps it isn’t the only one.

To use rugby and Gaelic games again as examples, it could be argued that such is the violence and aggression on the pitch that supporters are sated and feel no need to join in. Stomping, gouging and fist fights are commonplace and, it would appear, this sort of behaviour is not merely accepted but expected by the fans. Do not rugby and Gaelic fans laughingly describe soccer as a game for softies?

Cricket is a sedate game, aside from the so-called sledging that often goes on between batsman and bowler as they heap the foulest of abuse upon one another to try to gain an advantage.

Golf’s adherents aren’t necessarily lifted above tribalism either by that apparently gentle sport, and nor am I referring only to the nationalist fervour of the home crowd whenever the Ryder Cup is staged in the US.

No sooner had Rory McIlroy won the US Open in 2011 than the internet and, somewhat more convolutedly, parts of the mainstream media were alive with people inquiring about his religious and political persuasions. Is he one of ours or one of theirs?

Sport does not heal divisions and “bring people together”. At most, it reflects the prevailing attitudes of the critical mass of the society from which its participants and supporters hail. Katie Taylor is the toast of the Republic for two main reasons: the critical mass of Irish society no longer defines itself in narrow, exclusive terms; and, more basically, no one much gave a damn who won a gold medal for Ireland as long as somebody did.

That the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, has no qualms about describing himself as a Northern Irishman probably reflects how comfortable he is with the changed nature of Northern Ireland society since the Belfast Agreement was implemented. As are a growing number of northern Catholics despite the disruptive activities of tiny minorities within each of the two main communities.

Thanks to the Belfast Agreement Northern Irish people can choose to be British or Irish. Or both British and Irish, as Rory McIlroy has done. Sport played no part in changing social attitudes and political dispositions North or South. Rather, it has benefited from them to a similar extent as the rest of us.

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