The lot of the Irish sports fan is a cruel one. From now on there is an argument for all of us to support Kerry, Kilkenny and the All Blacks exclusively. At least we would save ourselves the excruciating weekend that has just passed.
Saturday was bad enough, with the football team doing their usual at the last minute in a depressed area of Central Europe. But, at least we know that the team is average. The opposite was the case on Sunday, when our stars — the rugby team — took to the field in Bordeaux. The disappointment on the face of Paul O’Connell summed it up at the end. The nation was shocked, the players were shocked and the manager was shocked.
In contrast, the smiles on the faces of the Namibians reminded us, if we could bear to watch, what it is like to be the underdog, what it is like to make a score respectable and what it is like to secure moral victories in sport. David and Goliath are essential to sport and, in a way, when some sports have become so predictable, there is joy in seeing rank outsiders have a go. The beam of the Namibian centre, who scored was reminiscent of Ray Houghton’s in the Giants Stadium — it was the elation of the underdog.
As a fan of Ireland, Sunday was devastating to endure, but, as a fan of sport, it was wonderful to watch. Without the underdog there is no drama, without the opposition there is no game. We need variety. In many areas of entertainment, there is far too much sameness. We need alternatives, upsets and newblood. The death of Pavarotti last week also reminded me of how this obsession with the best, to the exclusion of everything else, can have a deleterious effect on the overall experience. This “winner takes all mentality” can badly affect the ecosystem that creates, nurtures and hardens professional entertainers.
Two years ago my father got out of hospital after a long illness and, in contrast to the hype about the dreadful health service, our family’s experience in the public hospital was brilliant. The nurses were angels — charming, efficient and patient. They held his hand when he was frail and touched his brow when was running a temperature. They were humane to a fault.
The day he got out, I was given a pair of tickets to see Pavarotti in The Point. I knew that my dad had been a life-long fan and nothing could announce his return to the world (to himself as much as anyone else) better than getting spruced up with my mother and heading out to the concert.
Just as they pulled up to The Point, the announcer on Lyric FM stated solemnly that Pavarotti had just cancelled the concert, due to having contracted a throat infection. Concert off. Undeterred, my parents said they would go to the National Concert Hall to see what was on. If they couldn’t see Pavarotti, they would listen to someone else, probably equally as good, but less famous. After battling with Dublin’s traffic restrictions, counter-flows and one-way systems, they finally arrived at the Concert Hall. It seemed strangely quiet for a Saturday night. They approached the desk and the woman politely informed that all performances had been cancelled due to Pavarotti singing in The Point.
Ultimately, the upshot of Pavarotti streptococci was that no one in Dublin heard any classical music that night.Although Pavarotti was considered by many to be the best tenor in the world, that night my parents would have been very happy to see the second best tenor or one hundredth best tenor, but they couldn’t. Those guys would not get a chance to sing. Their stars were eclipsed by the sun-God of tenors, Pavarotti. Pavarotti was the winner and they were the losers, and no-one gets the chance to see losers.
Modern communications from Lyric FM to DVDs, CDs and, in my Dad’s case, records, had brought Pavarotti into everyone’s lives and overshadowed nearly all the other very brilliant, but not just brilliant enough, tenors in the world. Years ago, before the advent of these technologies, a journeyman tenor (as the name describes) could make a good living on the circuit and be happy doing what he did best — singing, entertaining and milking the modest applause. But not now, why listen to Joe Bloggs for â‚¬15 when you can buy a Pavarotti gift-box for â‚¬29.99? So all the cash went to Pavarotti; none to Joe Bloggs.
The upshot of the winner takes-all market is that the competition is squeezed out. This is why it was good to see the lowest ranking team in the tournament, Namibia, make a real fist of it. Without the Namibias of this world, there would be no sport.
This came home to me last night when watching the Under-6s at Dalkey United. Twenty-two five-years-old shared around after the ball like a swarm of bees. Some gave up and started chatting, one or two lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky, while a couple of other headed off the pitch altogether to see what was happening elsewhere. But the point is, this is where it all starts. This is where the Brian O’Driscolls of this world carry their first rugby ball, or the Roy Keanes make their first tackle.
This typical suburban sports scene is gelled together, not by dreams of the World Cup final, but by volunteers who give their time for something more valuable than cash. The volunteers who are behind all sports clubs, spotting talent, nurturing children,encouraging the weak and giving children confidence, are the backbone of sport. In many ways they are much more interesting than celebrity managers and their stables of professional footballers. These men and women do it for the love of sport, for the love of the Namibias.
Societies can’t survive without volunteerism. It is the thread that binds so much of what is good about Ireland together. It reminds you that, behind the “winner takes all” faÃ§ade of professional entertainment, there are hundreds of thousands of selfless people who are motivated by love, care and community. Whether it is football, GAA, rugby, swimming or whatever sport, volunteerism is the bedrock. Without these people we would have no O’Driscolls, O’Connells or Stringers.
When you see our sporting superheroes take the field, think of them as children, with outsized kit bags, muddy knees and full of hope. Behind them, egging them on is a volunteer, someone from the street, the estate or the parish, giving his all so that they can ultimately give theirs.