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'Liam Miller deserves more than to be an excuse for people to have a cut off each other'

The recent debate over Páirc Uí Chaoimh has turned into a point-scoring exercise between fans of the two sports, writes John O’Sullivan.

John O'Sullivan

WE’RE NEARLY THERE and it’s a massive relief.

The GAA have called a Central Council meeting tomorrow to vote on whether it will allow the Liam Miller benefit game to take place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Prior to this, it will review whether the game can be considered as aligning with the objectives of the GAA. We all expect that the GAA will allow the game to take place on its turf.

When the decision is finally made, it won’t have been Damien Duff’s labelling of the GAA as “dinosaurs” that made the difference, nor will the outrage from soccer fans — or politicians sensing which way the wind was blowing — have played a part.

The key impact will have been the reaction of GAA members — from high-profile players to grassroots — to last week’s statement by the organisation. Putting aside the outrage, the evidence has always been that the vast majority of GAA members were supportive of the game going ahead and it is they who will have effected the change.

Running parallel to the numerous media pieces was social media diarrhoea, as many saw an opportunity to make the conversation about them and their chance to reinforce their dislike for ‘the other’.

A general view of Pairc Ui Chaoimh Páirc Uí Chaoimh looks set to open its door to the charity match. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The GAA were labelled bigoted, heartless and the ‘Grab All Association’. “Sure they were happy to let American Football in, but they wouldn’t touch a popular foreign game”, was the claim. GAA defenders, heckles raised, shot back — decrying the state of Irish football that we didn’t have a stadium to host this game and that they were glad of an amateur GAA if Irish football was what professionalism delivered.

Neymar’s wages and cheating somehow became a debate point in a conversation about a benefit game for the family of a quiet and talented young Cork footballer, lost to cancer.

Even this morning, we had the Irish Independent’s Darragh McManus attacking the liberals attacking the GAA, going so far as to highlight that the players involved in the match to benefit Liam – Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand – “could each sock in a hundred grand… instead of asking the public to fork out… they’re that rich”.

McManus is as unhelpful as Damien Duff, who he highlights in his article. Both stances are ‘look at me’ nonsense in a world where your reaction to what you hate is increasingly used to move papers, TV and websites.

It’s just another example people being unable to enjoy their own sport (or team) for its own sake. We continue to define ourselves by how much we hate ‘the other’ rather than simply by how much we enjoy what’s ours. Liam Miller deserves more than to be an excuse for people to have a cut off each other.

You could see it right through the World Cup, when the diving antics of Neymar were used by rugby fans to label football as ‘Wendyball’ and for GAA fans to highlight that these players were on millions while intercounty players giving their all in hurling were amateurs. The fact that football fans around the world were ridiculing and criticising Neymar wasn’t taken into account.

Within Ireland, we have a long history of football fans attacking rugby and GAA, and those codes giving it right back. Institution attacking institution. We also have a long history of the majority of people enjoying more than one sport, of wanting Irish men and women to perform well on the world stage. But we too readily buy into the nonsense that you can’t support Kerry without hating the Dubs, that you can’t support Celtic without hating Rangers, that you’re not a true GAA man if you enjoy soccer.

Most of it is borne of fear and jealousy, so here’s some home truths. The GAA are terrified by the numbers playing soccer and the move to summer soccer. They are jealous of the fact that it’s a global game to which people have constant and daily access, they just cannot compete with a World Cup final or a Champions League final in terms of coverage or interest. Their biggest fear is that the FAI might turn into a fully competent organisation.

Liam Miller Liam Miller in action against Dundalk's Daryl Horgan during the 2015 FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Soccer fans, particularly League of Ireland fans, are jealous of the facilities available to the GAA — massive stadiums used for a handful of fixtures a year while our improving domestic game is played in family unfriendly stadia which look brutal on TV – evidenced as recently as last night when a huge Europa League game was played against the backdrop of Oriel Park, a stadium that just cannot live up to the quality of the team for which it provides a home.

Both GAA and soccer fans are jealous of the bandwagon that rugby has become. In our living memory, the game here was a woefully-attended All-Ireland league and occasional and meaningless inter-provincial games. Rugby was a niche sport but now with good management and the Heineken Cup accepting provincial sides, the IRFU have grown it into a fully-professional domestic game, with Ireland competing at the very top level internationally.

Importantly, fans are able to see the world’s elite players locally. GAA might argue they have this, but the games lack the international status of rugby and soccer, which means a massive organisation can look small time and parochial — the compromise rules series hasn’t helped in this sense at all.

It’s funny though, in a country where hockey, cricket, basketball, rowing and boxing often raise their heads above the parapet without any criticism, garnering almost universal acclaim when they’re doing well, it’s worth asking why those smaller sports – in an Irish sense – don’t attract the same venom as the big three.

It’s precisely because they’re small, not a threat — as we used to think of rugby. In the end, it’s about power and money, because it’s not enough to enjoy our sport and our internal rivalries without feeling like we’re the biggest and best and those who dislike us are wrong — they’re the ones missing out.

The FAI, GAA and IRFU are all chasing the same sponsors, the same funding and grants, the same TV money and ultimately, they all know that they’re chasing the same elite players. Even at a local level clubs are pushing specialisation earlier, getting elite-level players to choose their preferred sport at 12 and 13, for the simple reason that a talented football player at a young age tends to be quite sporty and can play GAA or rugby equally well. The focus is on how they can get players for themselves, rather than what the child wants or how the rival codes could help the overall development.

Liam Miller played GAA as a kid, there was a widely-shared photo of him holding a cup aloft in Páirc Uí Chaoimh , but it was used as a stick to beat the GAA rather than to embrace the fact that the unassuming lad in the middle of all this bullshit was once a talented child who played more than one sport and probably enjoyed them all, before excelling in one and doing us all proud.

Ireland is a small country, even our biggest sports — for all their difference — have massive amounts in common. They’re all embedded in their communities, run by volunteers who want to do the best for those around them.

When two soccer teams run out at Páirc Uí Chaoimh for a match, watched by thousands of people who enjoy sport for its own sake, it might be worth focusing on what we have in common, rather than what differentiates us.

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