By now everyone who has any connection to Ireland has had their say about the handball. Prime Ministers, footballers including our own human wind turbine, and, on the Today programme yesterday morning, A Rich Irish Bloke Who No One has Heard Of. My neighbour’s Irish setter is in mourning. That must be why he was howling all night, and if I was kept awake, then it’s a worthy sacrifice in the face of such a craven injustice. I like to be seen to do my bit for the downtrodden and exploited.
But one voice rang loud and true. Roy Keane never struck me as big on regret or hand-wringing, and his advice to the Irish F.A. to get over it and move on may have ruffled a few feathers, just as his tackles did on the pitch, but never was he more effective. Opinions are divided on his status as a manager but this interview uncovered his attitude and methods. Imagine the defenders’ reaction if he were in charge, entering the dressing room full of injustice only to choke on their protests as Keane reminds them just how bad they were. You would have to be a strong character to emerge from a battering like that. No wonder the players don’t always respond as he would wish.
Mind you, this was nothing compared with his dressing down of the unwary journalist whose mobile rang not once but twice during the press conference. The hapless hack wilted under the twin-pronged assault of the burning heat of Keane’s stare and his sarcastic silences. I shuddered, and I was only listening on Five Live.
The question at hand is not so much whether or not the game will be played again – that was never going to happen – but why the demand for a replay is so great. The Irish have been badly treated, their most justified complaint being not so much the handball but a play-off seeding system that allows FIFA to confer a huge advantage on their favoured teams. However, the fact is that matches are simply not replayed in these circumstances. Ever. Bad luck and move on. This has always been an element of a game where the unpredictable provides much of its enduring fascination.
It’s always tempting to divorce sport from the society of which it is a part. Cricket has been the most illuminating example in recent years, with tours to Zimbabwe threatened and/or cancelled as debate rages over whether the game should be independent of the politics of the countries England play. Sport not politics was infamously used as the justification of the English cricketers in the seventies who took the South African cash in the face of iniquitous apartheid and world condemnation.
Closer to home, we all use football as a means of getting away from it all for a couple of hours. Enter the ground and we work to a different set of customs, morals and rules. As someone who is so mild I make Clark Kent look like Gengis Khan in comparison, I would not only not say boo to a goose, I would give the goose a very wide berth in the first place. Yet I am more than happy to sputter and rage at Spurs’ opponents, and from my vantage point fairly close to the pitch, I glory in their fear and trepidation.
But football is an integral element of our culture and the two are inextricably linked. The roots of the barrage of Irish indignation lie within the growing trend in our society not just to find someone to blame when things go wrong but to seek redress from the institutions that govern us. On one level, we have the compensation culture where accidents seldom happen or individuals are never at fault. We no longer trip over cracked paving stones, we are instead victims of a council deficient in their road repair duties. Schoolchildren cannot play ball or make ice-slides in winter because the school could be seen as culpable if injuries follow. An institution is faulty in some way.
It’s the same on a broader scale. News items, some covering undeniable human tragedy, so often conclude with a demand that ‘the government should take action’ or ‘the government should compensate us’. A car company goes under, there’s a terrible accident or people lose money when investments fail, in all of this and more the government may have some sort of role but primarily that’s the way the system is. I truly feel for the individuals involved – I have lost children in tragic circumstances and there is nothing worse. However, that’s not the point: the clamour for the government or a governing body to ride over the hill top and save us all is so much hot air.
This is my only way of understanding the source of these increasing demands for redress and replays after the event. It’s definitely on the increase and never used to be part of the game. We grumbled and moaned, shouted abuse from the stands or indulged in murky conspiracy theories in dark corners of smoky pubs. Society is changing and so is football. Improve refereeing, put the onus back to players regarding their conduct and get the governing bodies closer to the fans, but resist these attempts to rewrite history. In the face of the forces of these social trends, that may not be so easy, but if the game’s ruling bodies cave in at some future point, football will be changed forever and not for the better.