This September, I moved into a flat beside Dalymount Park, former home of the Irish national football team and current home of Bohemians football club. Never having watched League of Ireland (LOI), I was intrigued by the prospect of living beside a football grounds. So, two weeks ago, my flatmates and I attended Bohemians’ local derby with Shamrock Rovers. Not sure what to expect, we entered the grounds with low expectations but emerged with positive reviews of the experience.
The match itself was a scrappy affair. It finished 0-0 and with the deadlock remaining unbroken after extra time, Rovers came out on top on penalties. Not the most thrilling encounter but the sight of 36 year old Irish footballing legend Damien Duff and the eternally compelling prospect of penalties made it well worth the €10 student admission. While I was eminently aware that none of the players on the pitch approached the skill levels of Messi or Ronaldo, I found myself wrapped up in the occasion and we decided that we would definitely attend more games in future.
Of course, the LOI isn’t massively well attended. The financial state of the League is often highlighted with ten teams closing down in the same number of years. The fortunes of Premier League teams are of far more importance to most Irish people than that of the team in the domestic national league. Not that people should attend local matches out of some weird sense of nationalistic duty. Rather, the prospect of live, entertaining and community-based football should attract far more people than it currently does. However, it is undeniable that the standard of the LOI is undeniably considerably inferior to that of the Premier League.
Which isn’t to say that the quality of football in the LOI is poor. National hero Shane Long who scored the winning goal in Ireland’s miracle victory over Germany began his career in the LOI, as did Robbie Keane. And players such as Bobby Charlton and George Best graced the league’s’ pitches towards the end of their respective careers. While players of this stature don’t typically spend a great amount of time in the league, it indicates that the ability of the players should be a pulling factor rather than a deterrent.
Regardless, the technical standard of the football on display isn’t everything. The football played in the LOI is entertaining, if inferior in quality to that of the Premier League. The argument against the LOI, which promotes pure physical ability as the most important factor, is often voiced and frequently used to disparage women’s football; it is suggested that men are faster and stronger, which means that men’s football is more entertaining. This argument is problematic however, as in sports such as tennis, male and female athletes are equally popular. Furthermore, heavyweight boxing matches are not seen as more entertaining than lightweight ones. The pure physical ability displayed in a sporting contest is not, it would appear, the deciding factor in regards to the popularity of the sport.
A few weeks ago the Conroy Report was published. This report sought to identify issues with the LOI and, consequently, propose viable solutions. One of the reasons cited by those questioned who no longer attended matches was that there was a “rowdy atmosphere” with “abusive language”. However, the number one reason cited which would encourage fans to attend a LOI match was the improvement of facilities. Nobody wants to watch matches in a dingy stadium, with a poorly kept field. This coupled with accusations of a hostile atmosphere, do not make the LOI an attractive option for a Friday night out. This severely diminishes the status of the league and consequently, what is known as its cultural capital.
Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, identified sport as a major component of what he termed cultural capital. This cultural capital can be described as certain tastes, habits and skills which are possessed by those who together form a sort of collective identity. Having or indeed more importantly, not having certain types of cultural capital can be a source of social inequality. For example, speaking with a particular accent or dialect could improve your career prospects more than it should. It follows that different sports are perceived differently. Some have certain cultural capital attached to them while others don’t.
This may seem obvious. Sports like croquet or polo have glaring connections with a particular social class. Marx described cricket as having “bourgeois Englishness dripping from every rule and expression”. With sports such as such as soccer, the reality is a bit more murky and harder to delineate. Is it that the LOI lacks desirable cultural capital? The symbolic value of being a rugby fan perhaps indicates that you belong to a certain socio-economic group which is attractive. This might explain why the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) seemingly don’t care about the LOI. A cursory glance at the FAI’s twitter page reveals very little promotion of their domestic league, perhaps because they don’t think it has much chance of improving.
With the Rugby World Cup in full swing and the nation captivated, it is perhaps useful to analyse the difference in how the public views both sports. The far too often repeated nauseating cliché that rugby is a “hooligan’s game played by gentlemen while football is a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans” is constantly rolled out as a sweeping generalisation that is bought into by far too many people. But does this viewpoint really permeate our thinking to such an extent that our analysis of individual sports are dictated by a latent understanding that some sports are for different types of people?
Recently, in Ireland’s crucial group match against France, Sean O’Brien was suspended for punching France lock Pascal Pape in the stomach. Most of the analysis of this incident has focused on how Pape had provoked O’Brien, with no claims brought against O’Brien’s moral character. The claims by France’s head coach, Philippe Saint- André, that O’Brien had assaulted Pape were widely derided and dismissed as French “sour grapes”. I wonder, had Robbie Keane punched a Polish player in the stomach during a scuffle before a corner kick last Sunday, would the media have concerned itself with the same level of moral rationalisation? Would they have focused on the provocative actions of the Polish player? Perhaps, but I think it is rather unlikely.
Rugby is seen as an almost morally superior sport. Many will recall rugby referee Nigel Owens scalding a player for talking back, saying, “This is not soccer”. Indeed, after rugby matches, players’ line up before the entrance and clap the opposing team off the field. Only the captains are allowed to speak to the referee and on the whole, rugby union certainly appears to be slightly more civilised than soccer. These are of course, nice gestures, and they set a fine example for kids watching at home. But they’re also just that, gestures. Ultimately quite superficial actions which probably don’t instil a deep sense of honour in those engage in them. It’s quite difficult to imagine that a child who plays rugby exclusively will have a greater sense of sportsmanship than one who plays soccer merely because of these features of the game. That is not to say that they are of no importance however. Superficial elements like displays of sportsmanship or in the case of the LOI, improved facilities and atmospheres are supremely important as they influence public perception and entice people to certain sports.
Perhaps the FAI can learn from rugby union. An increase in funding and the creation of a more attractive environment would attract greater levels of interest to what is a stagnant sector in Irish sport. Such an environment would surely draw much needed media attention. The league should not abandon its roots however and in its search for a broader audience it should be ensured that it does not alienate its current fanbase. A compelling, competitive domestic football league with widespread national attention is not outside the nation’s grasp.
Photo by Paul Reynolds