By John Kelly
The real world as we used to know it has been adjourned. The sports mad Irish are engrossed in a universal frenzy called the World Cup.
But we Irish have it even better than most of the rest. Not alone is there the World Cup and the final, which will be watched by somewhere in the region of 1.5 billion people, there are also the current All-Ireland championships, which engage the attention of just about everybody on the island.
If you are about to visit this summer, be warned, you will see some strange sights and you will overhear conversations that will be absolutely bewildering to the uninitiated.
You may sit, supping the national beverage in a center city pub when you are assailed by the spectacle of a normally rational businessman rushing in with briefcase in hand, excitedly shouting at a barman, “What’s the score?”
And if a pretty young girl happens to ask the same question, don’t imagine for one moment that all of your birthdays have arrived at once.
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The game is soccer. The focal point of every home, bar, hotel, golf club, throughout Europe and all of the remaining parts of the globe will be the TV screen. About one in every three of the world’s population will watch the drama being played out in France.
There will be no talk about David Trimble. Gerry Adams will hardly ever be mentioned. Doubtlessly, he will be watching the World Cup as well, and you can be sure that he is already excited about the potential of the Ulster football final.
For the duration, the North has ceased to be a topic of conversation. Football and hurling are much more serious than that. In fact, it is not just about sport. As a soccer manager once sagely observed, “Life and death are not a matter of football. They are 110 percent less serious than that!”
The Irish police, who are staging another one-day work stoppage, the so-called “Blue Flu,” in its pay dispute, need not concern themselves with criminal activity. All of the gangsters will be glued to the World Cup games as well.
Sadly, the “Green Army” has not qualified for the French party. They will be missed. Who can forget the great joy of Italy and the United States?
Irish fans so captivated their Italian hosts with their good-humored sportsmanship, their singing and their gleeful drinking, that there was a dramatic increase in tourism from that country to the delight of Bord Failte.
Now the Celtic Tiger is at rest. Dublin’s bars are crowded from early afternoon as office and construction workers down their mobile phones and hard hats.
The opening game between Scotland and Brazil saw Glasgow’s streets deserted. One third of the total work force took time off. It was all a little like Dublin four years ago, swirling kilts and bare bums apart.
In Brazil where kids play football with their bare feet in slums, even the Stock Exchange closed down.
As a game, soccer may sometimes be dreadfully pedantic and even boring. But it is, unquestionably, the world’s most popular sport and, by far, the most widely watched.
One of the big surprises, so far as western Europeans are concerned, is that the U.S. is now a very serious contender indeed. Steady team building has paid off. No longer do Europeans turn up their noses when the U.S. team is mentioned.
It may never come close in popularity to baseball, football or basketball as a mass Stateside attraction, but it certainly seems to have filled a comfortable niche.
And, what of Ireland?
Soccer will always be popular here, especially in the cities and larger towns. Not alone will it remain such, but it will continue to export some of the world’s top players abroad, mainly to the UK. It always did. Many a poor Dublin kid from a deprived background elevated himself to millionaire status with twinkling feet and swerving hips.
However, even in Ireland, soccer is almost certain to remain in the second division when matched against hurling and football.
While we enjoy the World Cup every fourth year and while we retain more than a passing interest in the cross-channel league and cup, we are absolutely spoiled for choice in sport. When we are not playing golf in our own backyard on the finest courses in Europe, we turn our undivided attention annually to packed GAA venues in all parts of the island.
For most Irish people, this is where the real action is, the blood and guts, the allegations and counter-allegations that are part and parcel of every GAA encounter. So, if you are one of thousands of summer visitors to Ireland, do not be surprised to hear whirling conversations concerning the prowess of lack of it in numerous Irish counties. Rest assured, it has nothing to do with economic indicators. It is all about hurling and football.
When you consider that more than 60,000 people packed Croke Park for the drawn championship tie between Dublin and Kildare even though the game was televised live, you will readily understand why we are so often described as a sports mad nation.
And, lest we forget, while all of this was happening, there was quite a degree of attention paid to the progress of the Irish rugby touring side in South Africa, although it must also be admitted that the public, besotted as it is with the World Cup and the All-Ireland championships, have ignored that particular sporting odyssey entirely – until we win, of course.
Summer would not be summer without the sharp clash of ash against ash, with the full-hearted roar of a packed Croke Park. The world can only enjoy the spectacle of the World Cup every fourth year. But we enjoy drama and spectacle after spectacle, year after year.