I rarely, if ever take more than the slightest of interest in any soccer tournament, including the World Cup. However, I am always keenly interested in the relationship between society at large and sport. How, for example when the major debate of China's controversial choice as host nation of the Olympics and the talk of boycotting the games based on whether or not sports and politics a should be linked. Personally I was all for the boycott. Sure the athletes pour their heart and soul into training but many Tibetans have staked their lives on the pursuit of freedom. I recognise the capacity of sport to heal and unify (North and South Korea marching under one flag in previous Olympic games) but I also recognise how it can be used as a political tool and should therefore not be immune to political ramifications.
Although the topic I am talking about today is a far cry from the gravity of the 2008 situation in Beijing it does show how sport can capture the imagination of an entire nation and even lead to the political involvement of major leaders. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few days you will no doubt have heard about the abuse given by France's Nicholas Anelka to his team's manager during their clash with Mexico on Saturday. For those who have in fact being just that, I will provide a lose translation. Anelka told his manager after being replaced to " Go f*** yourself, you son of a b****." And thus the escalation of the story began.
So after these comments being reported to the FFF (French Football Federation) Anelka was removed from the team ( a very rare occurrence in itself). However, what happened the following day led to outrage across France with the French team refusing to train and walking off the pitch in protest at the sending home of Anelka.
Here is where things get interesting. Today after being beaten 2-0 by South Africa the 1998 champions will be flying home in disgrace after the FFF took the step of bumping them down to economy class after flying them over in style in first. The debacle even resulted in intervention by Nicholas Sarkozy ordering his Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to speak to the players. According to French news network France 24 her comments, claiming the French people could no longer be seen as the role models they should be for young people in France, resulted in tears being shed amongst the players. She also said that (and I quote) [I told them] they tarnished the image of France....... They have destroyed the dreams of their countrymen, their friends and supporters." Surely, just a little over the top, no? The same network I was watching live displayed a headline that I translate to mean France in Mourning.
One country that of course will not be unhappy to see France exciting the tournament is my own, having been the victim of a Thierry Henry hand ball leading to the goal that cost us our place in the prestigious event. Indeed it led to even more controversy for the French tonight when manager Domenech refused to shake hands with the South African manager, allegedly following comments by him that France never should have made it to the World Cup because of the Henry incident. Indeed, that particular incident was huge news here and a major electronics distributer has offered a one hundred euro to its customers when France crash out of the competition.Watch the (slightly racist) ad here.
Ireland is no stranger to World Cup controversy. In 2002 the country was divided when our captain and unarguably one of the greatest players ever to play for the team launched a foul mouthed attack on the then manager even before the tournament had begun refusing to play and returning home. It was difficult to find a soul who didn't have an opinion on the issue. I can honestly swear never to have heard my country in more thorough discussion of any issue since. Our very own Prime Minister tried in vain to resolve the conflict and the saga was even made into one of the longest running shows ever in the history of Irish theater.
It is clear that sport is a powerful instrument that can lift spirits and destroy them, unify and separate. However I can assure Ms Bachelot that my opinion of France will not be changed by the actions of 15 odd men on a pitch in South Africa and I never once questioned my Irish pride when Roy Keane stormed off that pitch in Saipan although I know many who did view it as a disgrace. Maybe it is just the lack of interest in me talking but perhaps at the end of the day we should all just sit back relax and remember it is only a game.