I don't know what was more depressing: watching Ireland get knocked out of the World Cup in a nail-biting penalty shoot-out with Spain -- or reading the patronizing post-match coverage of the "brave boys in green" and their oh-so-courageous efforts.
"Plucky Irish left with tears for souvenirs," said the Sun. Not that it mattered, because "despite the sickening disappointment, they remain heroes one and all ... for this was yet another massive performance from the Irish".
Really? Even I (weeping Irish fan) could see that Ireland struggled for much of the battle against Spain. In the first half, our best player was the linesman who kept ruling Spanish goals offside -- and if it wasn't for Damien Duff's hard work and Niall Quinn's ability to fall into the ball at all the right times, Irish eyes would have stopped smiling a lot sooner.
According to the Guardian, what Ireland lacked in traditional footballing skills they more than made up for with "spirit, desire and determination." The Mirror labeled the Irish team "never-say-die heroes," who even have the "courage to take a penalty when the whole world is watching" -- as if that isn't something World Cup squads have to do all the time.
The Daily Express said the Irish team were "brave beyond belief, as their hearts and minds were assaulted by extraordinary drama and controversy." Brave beyond belief? For playing football? The Express made the Irish squad sound like special needs children who should have got a medal for just turning up. "They are a team with all the moral courage you could wish," gushed the Express -- before adding, "if only they had more players who could score with a penalty kick ... "
For the Mirror, the Irish team had far more warmth and emotion than any other World Cup squad, but were lacking in those cold, nasty, un-Irish things called goals. "For all their passion, for all Ireland's incredible desire and the subsequent outpouring of tears, the cold statistics sliced through the sentiment of this emotional night", said the Mirror's Des Kelly. Damn those cold statistics!
Reading about the brave Irish, you could be forgiven for thinking that the squad is made up of bog-trotters and builders who wandered into world-class football by accident. In fact, Ireland has some top-class English Premiership players. Goalkeeper Shay Given plays for Newcastle United; Robbie Keane plays for Leeds United; Damien Duff plays for Blackburn Rovers; Kevin Kilbane and Jason McAteer play for Sunderland. Matt Holland might play for first-division Ipswich, but Premiership teams are keen to snap him up after his World Cup performance.
When Gary Breen scored the second goal in Ireland's 3-0 win against Saudi Arabia on June 11, 2002, the Sun ran a headline about an "unemployed man" bringing "glory to Ireland," as if Breen was some skivvy between building sites with a part-time interest in football. In fact, he is "between contracts", having done his time at first-division Coventry City.
Yet these players now find themselves patronized for being spirited and good-natured, rather than praised (or criticized) for their footballing skills. We know the Irish are the blacks of Europe. Now it seems that the Irish football team are the black Africans of European football -- hailed as "a breath of fresh air" in a hard sport, just as African teams have been for the past 10 years. Rough translation of "breath of fresh air": they haven't got a hope in hell of winning, but they provide momentary emotional relief from the real battle for the World Cup.
The patronizing appraisal of the Irish team means they were judged by different standards. So when five million people in the UK watched Ireland play Saudi Arabia on June 11, the Guardian got overexcited. "More than half the people watching TV yesterday lunchtime were glued to the dramatic game," the paper exclaimed. But when the same number of people in the UK watched France play Senegal on May 30, the Guardian was downbeat: "The match barely registered on the nation's consciousness, with around five million viewers tuning in ... "
It is no longer acceptable to call the Irish fighting drunks or thick Paddies or backward bogtrotters -- but it's perfectly okay to label them warm, spirited, have-a-go heroes, the eternal losers we all "feel for." Everyone loves the Irish now ... in the same way everyone loves children -- because (allegedly) they are a simple, naïve and feeling people. I think I'd rather be called a fighting bogtrotter.
The Irish team and its globetrotting fans seem keen to play up to the new cutesy image. Many of the fans in Japan dressed up as leprechauns, complete with big green hats with fake ginger hair sticking out of the sides. And in post-Spain interviews, Irish players and manager Mick McCarthy emphasised that it was the "taking part" in the World Cup that really mattered, and that at least Ireland gave it their "spirited best."
Reading about the 100,000-strong crowd of well-wishers (who included Irish president Mary McAleese and prime minister Bertie Ahern) who welcomed the Irish squad back to Ireland with a massive open-air concert in Dublin's Phoenix Park, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland had won the World Cup rather than having got knocked out in the final 16.
Now, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power is refunding bets to Irish fans who gambled that Ireland would win the tournament: "Following [Ireland's] tragic exit from the tournament, Paddy Power has decided to give the country's fans something to smile about. In a PR masterstroke the betting chain said it would be handing back £128,000 as part of a goodwill gesture ... " Since when has football, or gambling for that matter, been about "goodwill"?
"They say that no one ever remembers losers", said the Mirror, "but [Ireland] will be the exception to the rule." Who wants to be remembered as a loser? On the same day, the Sun quoted England's David Beckham saying he wanted to be a "real hero" by actually winning the World Cup.
I can't have been the only one who wanted the Irish team to be real heroes too, instead of readymade loveable losers.
Brendan O'Neill is an associate editor at Spiked Online.