Tag Archives: soccer

An afternoon with the Timbers Army

Providence Park, Portland

Providence Park, Portland

I blame Kurt Cobain.

More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.

Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.

Saturdays were spent building up to soccer (Saint and Greavsie) in the morning, watching a game on TV in the afternoon, and then poring over the results on Match of the Day that night.

Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.

Cheers and beers

Cheers and beers

The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.

That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.

Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.

Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.

I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.

I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think –  watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.


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The kick that changed Ireland’s outlook

Wes Hoolahan's cross

The cross

The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.

No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.

It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.

Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.

The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.

As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.

Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.

In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.

A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.

Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.

This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
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Orwell’s poor call on the England-Russia game

George Orwell - not a football man

George Orwell – not a football man

What would George Orwell have said, had he been walking through Marseille’s Old Port district last weekend?

It’s likely to have been some combination of ‘duck’ and ‘run’, followed by ‘I told you so’.

The violent clashes between Russian and English football supporters echoed The Sporting Spirit, an essay Orwell wrote following the 1945 visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain, during which the Soviet side played four ‘friendly’ games.

Citing on-field clashes between Dynamo and Arsenal players, and the booing of the Moscow players by the home crowd, Orwell pithily concludes, “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…in other words it is war minus the shooting”.

The English writer, though forgiving in parts (a game of football with friends “on the village green” is acceptable, just about), sees little merit in competitive sport – and much malice.

“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he writes. “The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind these spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests.”

Writing in an age before FIFA was the $2bn-a-year behemoth it is today, Orwell notes that – even in the first half of the 20th century – “games were built into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions”.

The essay, written six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, concludes, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of [international] football matches…watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.”

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

What’s the solution then? How can we avoid rousing the savage passions that see a city like Marseilles locked down, people kicked and beaten police firing tear gas, and dozens injured?

Orwell’s is simple. Don’t play such games. And, if you must, send out a team of no-hopers to highlight the pointlessness, if not danger – of the entire thing.

Which goes to show that even the greatest writers of modern times, can be blindly naive, and wrong.

Denying peaceful national passions an outlet in a Europe riven by internal discord and home to a rise in support for the far right could result in a continent that Orwell was all too familiar with – the simmering Europe of the 1930s.

Aside from the soccer and the small hooligan minority, the Euro 2016 football championship provides a space for national rivalries to play out in a loud, assertive but non-violent manner – perhaps even a boring one, as anyone who watched rivals Germany and Poland play out a 0-0 draw last night will attest.

Football is, as Orwell put it, ‘mimic warfare’. Better that than the real thing.

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