Irish allegiances switch over time

By Dave Hannigan

A few months back, there was a symposium held at St. Finnbarr's College in Lagos to discuss the falling standards in education in Nigeria. Held in honor of the school's former principal, Fr. Denis Slattery, the talk quickly segued into a treatise on that institution's unique contribution to Nigerian sport in general, and the game of football in particular. On both counts, Slattery played a stellar role, as a teacher, a coach, an administrator, and a referee. Long before European clubs started trawling the continent for talent, the Fermoy-born cleric laid the grassroots for the national team known and loved as the Super Eagles.

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In the week when the first African World Cup kicks off, it seems only fitting to recall Slattery. Even if the Catholic church has fallen into disrepute of late, the way in which the Corkonian cleric and thousands of other Irish missionary priests shaped matters on that continent for decades needs to be acknowledged. Nigeria may not be the power in the game that they once were but that they are competitive at all is in large part down to Slattery putting in place structures to support the sport. Here was a man who once persuaded Stanley Matthews to travel from England to Lagos to oversee training. For no money either.

"The name Denis Slattery rings many bells," went an article in Nigeria's Monthly Life magazine, "but the one that chimes loudest is a soccer tune. There is Slattery the reverend father, there is Slattery the educationalist, and Slattery the journalist. But the Slattery that is a household name with most Nigerians is Slattery the football administrator."

As we look around for teams to root for in the forthcoming tournament, Nigeria should be right up there. Who else can boast of having an Irishman amongst the former chairmen of their Football Association? And the fact they wear green should help too.

For most people, of course, it's not hard to find somebody to cheer for in a World Cup without Ireland involved. For an entire section of the Irish population, it's a case of Anybody but England. However, there are other reasons too that spark our affections. Traditionally, I always hope for Holland to do well. This is down to my late father's love for the Total Football team that were defeated by the West Germans in 1974 and my own disappointment at the Johann Cruyff-less Oranje's defeat by the dastardly Argentines four years later.

The Dutch are easy to support. They play the game the right way and always have a couple of creative types who make the mouth water with their passing. This could be a good month for them too. As long as Arjen Robben's injury isn't that serious, they look like serious contenders if their shaky defence holds.

When your own country isn't involved, your loyalties to any team are fluid though. Eight years after cursing Mario Kempes and the great Leopold Luque, I was cheering heartily for Argentina, not just because of the hilarious way in which they defeated England, but out of an adolescent desire to see Diego Maradona's genius rewarded. Funnily enough, the same feeling applies this time around. I want Argentina to do well because I want Lionel Messi to get to perform on the biggest stage and to win the whole thing.

How ironic though that his chances of triumphing are undermined by being managed by the plainly bonkers Maradona. This is the equivalent of England being managed by Paul Gascoigne, except perhaps worse.

That we can switch allegiances from tournament to tournament is a given. After all, how could anybody in Ireland want France to do well given the events of last year? Even though it should be pointed out (again) Henry's handball denied us a penalty shoot-out and not actual victory, we can only hope "Les Bleus" do as badly as most pundits expect. This is a new sensation for those of us who've nursed a gra for the French from the Michel Platini magnificence in one era through to the magic of Zizou in another.

Brazil are another team that garner lots of Irish support. Although their style in qualifying suggests the Dunga edition may not be the most easy on the eye, this won't matter to the generations of Irish who grew up in the Pele era. Not to mention those of us who had our young hearts broken by the failure of the sumptuously entertaining team of 1982 (Zico, Socrates et al) to go all the way. That was a harsh lesson that in any World Cup the best side doesn't always take home the trophy even if the victorious Italians were hardly slouches either.

The worry is that the Irish kids who fell in love with Spain during their European Championships romp two years (and hopefully have been trying to ape them ever since) may learn the same thing over the next few weeks. Spain has the best squad, most of the best players, and seems to have shaken off the bad habit of failing to perform at major events. They also have a squad that's been on the go for three consecutive summers (remember last year's Confederations Cup) with their country after sapping seasons with the highest-profile clubs in Europe. Worrying.

Of course, the lengthy club campaign is never cited by the Germans (another dark horse this time around) or the Italians (always capable of eking their way to the semis) as an excuse. It is a complaint beloved of English journalists after their team makes the traditional and occasionally brave exit at the quarterfinals stage of the tournament. The troubled build-up may help deflate expectations around the most hyped of all the teams and, disturbingly for all the Irish fans so passionately hoping for them to fail spectacularly, it wouldn't be surprising if Fabio Capello manages to guide them to their first semi-final for two decades. After that, anything can happen. Most Irish people will hope it doesn't.

[INPHO/GETTY IMAGES Germany's Lukas Podolsk, left, and Sergio Ramos of Spain pictured during the European Championship final in 2008. Spain are favorites, while Germany are considered dark horses for World Cup 2010.]