Irish soccer fans abroad: a source of pride or embarrassment?
The Irish supporters in France are winning medals . . . for getting drunk and singing
The behaviour of Irish football fans in France, now officially award-winning, is a blank canvas onto which people can paint their favourite prejudices.
For the uncritical many, our supporters really are the world’s greatest, welcomed everywhere as representatives of a country that is itself beloved among the nations. This, broadly speaking, is how the fans themselves see it.
For less impressed others, the obsession with our popularity is part of an unhealthy desire, typical of small countries but more pronounced in this one, to be noticed abroad, and if possible admired.
To a third group, of which Roy Keane is a former champion, the lovable Irish fans at best reflect a culture of underachievement by the teams they support, and at worst are complicit in it.
Even if the players (or their chief executives) are not actually participating in the celebrations, goes this argument, the fans’ endless indulgence of their brave defeats excuses higher ambition.
And for some critics, of course, the fans’ reputation is all about our troubled relationship with alcohol. Are the street angels who get so lovably inebriated abroad – cleaning up after themselves, singing lullabies to babies, and maintaining excellent relationships with the police – no relation to the miscreants who cause so many problems back home?
Either way, should we really celebrate a culture, part of which seems to be a desire to demonstrate to the world how well the Irish, unlike certain other nations’ supporters, can hold their drink?
There are also, it is true, at least two ways to interpret the gratitude of France for our recent friendly invasion: capped this week by the announcement that Irish fans, from both North and South, will be awarded the Medal of the City of Paris for their behaviour.
Money talkingOne was summed up by Ernest Hemingway when, returning from Spain after a sporting event (of sorts) in the 1920s, he was able to solve some awkwardness with a French waiter just by overtipping him.
“It felt comfortable to be [back] in a country where it is so simple to make people happy,” he wrote. “You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France.”
The Paris medal can be seen as a simple but sensible public relations gesture from a city grateful to fans whose “model” behaviour included willingness to pay €7 or €8 for a pint, not to mention their generous contribution to the local hotel and restaurant industries.
In city taxes alone, they must have been at least as valuable as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose four-year sojourn in Paris, just ending, was also rewarded with the medal.
Alternatively, it could be that France and its capital city were genuinely impressed by the tens of thousands of Irish fans who passed through last month. It could even be – don’t sneer, those of you who stayed at home – that our supporters touched the soul of the host country in some way, cheering it up at a time when it was under great strain, from within and without.
That’s certainly the way it felt if you were there. France is famous for its misérabilisme: a tendency to wallow in the awfulness of life. But last month, at least in the places where the football tournament was happening, there were frequent outbreaks of cheerfulness, and we often seem to have caused them.
As the tournament progressed, the French media became almost as obsessed with the Irish fans as the Irish fans themselves were. By the time we reached Bordeaux, it was normal to be approached by locals, not all of them drunk, telling us how great we were.
Often, clearly, they were reciprocating something. Even French people need to be loved, it turns out, and just like us, some of them care a lot about how their country is seen abroad. We may even, to some extent, have flattered them.
In Lille, a young tournament volunteer told me how disappointed he was with the wave of strikes and labour protests that hit the country just as it was preparing to show its best face.
Love-in with the policeThe inconvenience aside, he thought it was unfair to the police, already overstretched by the security crisis. “It’s not right,” he said. But he thought it also explained why the love-in between Irish fans and the police had struck such a chord, being widely featured in the media.
The influence of sport, both good and bad, can be exaggerated. George Orwell, not normally given to hyperbole, was so depressed by the acrimony surrounding a 1945 friendly between Arsenal and Dynamo Moscow that he likened football to “war minus the shooting”. He did not seem to consider this a worthwhile advance on war in its original format.
By the same token, it might be overdoing it to talk of football as an engine of world peace. But the European Championships, which began in 1960, have at least coincided with half a century of peace on the continent (except for the break-up of Yugoslavia, whose components were oddly under-represented in Euro 2016).
Philosophical reflectionAnd the presence of the two Irelands at the tournament, in this of all summers, cannot but inspire some philosophical reflection. Had both teams made it through to one more round, they would have been playing this weekend, in different parts of France, precisely 100 years after two other Irish teams (representing the same sides of the political argument, more or less) fought in different parts of the Somme valley.
Back then, if you were a young Irish male, of either unionist or moderate-nationalist outlook, you had to prove your worth by a willingness to kill Germans or die in the attempt. Now, young Irishmen (and it was overwhelmingly men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, at the Euros) can express their political identities in France by getting drunk and singing. And they still win medals for it.
They were not all drinking, by the way. Or at least not to the epic extent of a hardcore minority (who also tended to bypass the €7 pints in favour of takeaways from those little convenience stores, in Paris and elsewhere, some of which had to operate a one-way system for customer traffic during post-midnight rush hours).
For everyone who was centrally involved in the performance, there were others on the edges, just watching it in wonder or amusement, if not quite with the same awe of the tourists on Paris’s open-top buses, for whom the massed street parties were a bonus to the nearby Moulin Rouge.
And it is a performance, usually. The Irish fans, especially of the Republic, have heard far too much about how good they are over the years not to be self-conscious about what they do.
This was most obvious in Lyon where, partly because we were playing the hosts, but also because our media celebrity was peaking, people in green could hardly move without having a TV camera pointed at them.
Image cultivationNor did they need much prompting about what was then required. Irish fans are old pros now. So everywhere you looked they were reprising their greatest hits, especially the classic “Sit down/Stand up for the French police”, for the benefit of grateful camera crews.
As was noted by at least one local journalist, the Republic’s supporters are particularly careful in cultivating their image, having had more big tournament practice. Nothing that redounded to their credit in France went unrecorded, with the results widely disseminated on social media and then by the mainstream broadcasters.
Yet another criticism of the “world’s greatest fans” trope, by the way, is the contrast between the paucity of numbers attending League of Ireland matches, say, or even international friendlies, and the ever-growing crowds who join the travelling circus.
This is true too. But then, for many of those who travel to tournaments, these events transcend mere football, which is at best an excuse for a themed holiday, during which they can also make a statement about themselves.
Especially around the Republic’s weekend games, in Bordeaux and Lyon, the influence of another Irish sporting code was striking. It’s part of Sunday observance for many of the Republic’s fans abroad that they wear their county GAA colours, whether or not the teams at home are playing.
If foreigners asks, the Dublin or Kerry or Roscommon supporters will proudly explain the phenomenon of Gaelic games: the amateurism, the 82,000 attendances at All-Ireland finals, the fact that rival fans are never segregated, even in stadiums, and so on.
But whether or not they get a chance to express that, the Irish fans abroad are usually making statements with their behaviour. Look at us, the message goes. We drink. We have fun. We had a tragic history, but we’re more or less over it now (in part thanks to EU funding) We think you’re great too. We will not wreck your town, whatever happens. We come in peace.