Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Armchair Fans

Imagine you are ten years old again and your big ambition in life is to become a Boy Scout. It is your dream, your ultimate ambition, your raison d’etre.
And so, you buy a tent and billie-cans, you learn how to tie a sheepshank in your woggle, you learn all the songs and sing them around the campfire, you make trails through the woods using only bits of twigs and deer shit and you go around annoying people during Bob-a-Job week. In short, you do all the exciting things that a Boy Scout does, with one exception – you never go to a meeting.
Question – are you a real Boy Scout?
My pet hate in life is armchair football fans, although strictly speaking that’s a contradiction in terms. Just as you can’t be a proper Boy Scout if you never attend a meeting, so, I maintain, you can’t be a proper football fan if you never go and see a game live, in the flesh, in situ.
Not that I am anti-television in any way. On the contrary, I enjoy watching matches on the box myself. I will gladly watch English football, European football, World football, any type of football, [except possibly Northern Ireland football,] if my wife lets me. I personally think that the advent of “live” football on Sky has shown the English game up for what it is – 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and that’s why a highlights package is often better than a full match, on the box. There is the same percentage of good games in England, as there are in Ireland, as there are in the Phoenix Park. What the televised English game has, is hype and presentation. Presenters can talk glibly about various aspects of a game in England, the percentage of possession, how many miles a player runs during a match, action replays from every angle etc etc. This tends to mask the fact that a game might be complete crap.
This is turning into a diatribe against English soccer, and that is not my intention. I have nothing against Irish fans spending huge amounts of time and money travelling back and forth across the Irish Sea, giving money to Tony Blair instead of spending it at home. That is their privilege and their right, and at least they are experiencing football as it should be experienced – live. Fair play to English soccer, they have marketed their product very well. My point is that it’s the same as St. Bernard’s Cornflakes – if you can’t taste the difference, why pay the difference?
I firmly believe that there is not much difference between the Premier League in England and the Premier Division over here, except in terms of fitness. English Premier League players are fitter – the game is played at top speed, from start to finish, often at the expense of skill. The skill factor in the two leagues is roughly similar, but the Liverpools and Uniteds beat us every time in terms of fitness and athleticism.
But does that mean that an English match is more enjoyable to watch than an Irish match? Those of us who attend Eircom League matches know it isn’t true. Of course you can get a crap game here, but you can just as easily get a crap game over the water.
But you will never convince the “armchair fan” of this. The subtle influences of marketing and hype can easily convince him that he’s seen a good game when in fact he hasn’t.
And, of course, the “armchair fan” has nothing to compare the televised game with. I, personally, get a great buzz out of the roar at Tolka when the two teams come out, accompanied by the strains of “Let me entertain you.” the manager going ape-shit on the touchline, freezing feet and soup at half-time, the sheer exhilaration of watching the net bulge, the rapport between players and fans. There is no substitute for being there.
The “armchair fan” watches a football match, the real fan experiences it. There is a world of difference between the two.
I could study Sierra Leone as a basis for a thesis in University. I could get all the books out of the library and the videos from Xtravision, and could surf the net picking up information from a myriad of sources. But I wouldn’t really know Sierra Leone unless I spent six months living there, getting to feel the atmosphere of the place.
In much the same way, the “armchair fan” cannot really lay claim to understanding football. A game at first hand is worth two on the box. Yet it is invariably the “armchair fan” who is the most opinionated and vocal, the one who phones up Today FM on a Saturday afternoon proclaiming that Houllier doesn’t have a clue, the one who, in the main, is most vocal in their opposition to the FAI’s deal with Sky Television, the one who is loudest in his denunciation of the Eircom League.
I am not a violent man. I make Mahatma Gandhi look like a crazed axe-murderer. But when I take over the world, I’m going to have all these “armchair fans” strapped into their armchairs and wheeled with increasing rapidity over the Cliffs of Moher. And then watch the action replay from every conceivable angle.

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