In a World Cup year and with the major finals across most major European sports fast approaching, Declan Hughes offers his thoughts on how neutrals can decide which side to pick.
In my last piece I discussed provincial allegiances. This topic was inspired by a question posed to me by a player, Irish international Leah Ewert from UCD, my favourite field hockey team, who was lining out for her native province Ulster in a competition against my native province later on in the Under 21 interprovincial tournament… “Who are you rooting for today?”.
In the previous article I explored the area of provincial allegiance, but Leah Ewert’s seemingly innocuous enquiry poses yet another question.
As 2014 is a year in which the Winter Olympics occurred in Sochi, Russia (Ireland only sent 5 competitors) and the World Cup takes place this summer in Brazil (neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland qualified), it poses yet another question in the area of allegiance.
Who do you root for, in major international sporting events, when you’re obvious choices are not taking part? Even within the provincial context as a Leinster man I feel quite comfortable rooting for other Irish provinces in rugby when they take on foreign opposition. Not a problem. They are Irish after all.
In the recent winter Olympics what few highlights I was able to take in, it was easy as a former resident of Canada, to choose an option and I rooted for them in most events. The exception, apart from the events including Irish participation, was curling.
I was introduced to curling while living in Canada via television. Each year about eight countries including Scotland, the USA and I think Denmark participated in a made for TV event called The Golden Broom, the Canadian skip during this was inevitably Don Duguid.
Indeed in the competition to select team Canada where the provincial teams took part as a resident of predominantly French speaking Quebec , they too were my team.
For some reason despite all this personal historical baggage associated with my former place of residence I found myself on a rare occasion rooting for Great Britain in this because essentially it was Scotland by another name. I also knew while they had a shot at medals, the Women were going to ultimately fall short to the Canadians and the men were about as competent as their female counterparts and unlikely to strike gold. Underdogs normally do it for me when all other criteria for choosing a team fall short.
World Cup 2014 however will be a different case in point. Neither Canada nor the two Irish representative sides made the finals. My Chilean born granny gives me a South American side to root for. My Egyptian born granddad, didn’t make it on either front as he was raised in Newtownards. But there’s something unnatural about not supporting a fellow continental side. In fact since we joined the EU it’s sort of incumbent to root for a fellow member state.
I found my other home in football long before I knew of the EU or indeed before Ireland joined this august association.
The first time I can ever recall watching soccer was in Montreal on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports show, in a friend’s house, back in June 1970. I was visiting my buddy Albert Ottoni and his family when highlights of the 1970 World Cup being held in Mexico. As my hosts were Italians it would have been rude to root for anyone else and the game I saw highlights from was the classic semi final 4-3 extra-time win over West Germany. I also saw highlights from the final where that amazing Brazil team danced on Italy by 4-1. That didn’t bother me, I was an Italy fan from then on.
When I took up the game on my return to Ireland, as a goalkeeper , Dino Zoff soon became a favourite player . And the 1974 World Cup where the team, who in 1973 were on form no.1 on the planet defeating England, Germany and Brazil in friendlies, bowed out in the group stages still didn’t discourage me. Neither did the defeat to two long range goals at the hands of the Dutch in Argentina 1978.
In 1974 once Italy were eliminated , I hitched my wagon to the Yugoslavian star and the mercurial wing wizard Dragan Dzajic. His club Red Star Belgrade also wormed their way into my affections and I was thrilled in 1991 when they were crowned champions of Europe. I was probably the happiest person without any Yugoslav ethnic connections in the world at the time. The Yugoslavs (later Serbs) have been default position no. 2 ever since.
I got my best buzz as an honorary Italian fan in 1982 when against the odds they beat the best four other countries in the tournament to win the World Cup in Spain. My favourite player Dino Zoff captained the side to ultimate glory. Short of your own country doing the trick, it doesn’t really get any better than that. Mexico 1986 was another disappointing tournament and in Italia 90 I was rooting for my native country for the first time till we lost 0-1, in a quarter-final, to the Azzuri.
They then in turn let me down, despite being the best man for man team in the tournament, by losing to Argentina in the semi-final.
By World Cup 1994 when Republic of Ireland beat the Azzuri 1-0 but also bowed out early I was happy to see Italy make the final but Roberto Baggio “ The Divine Ponytail” missed the crucial spot kick after a 0-0 to deny Arrigo Sacchi the biggest prize a coach can win in World soccer. The France World Cup in 1998 was disappointing and in 2002 the Italians were cheated out of advancing to the latter knockout stages , in a game against South Korea, by a referee who was found to be corrupt later on. Said individual is currently languishing in jail for low level criminal activity.
While I enjoyed seeing Italy win in 2006 and seeing Zoff’s logical successor Gianluigi Buffon captain the side it was probably the flukiest of Italy’s four World Cup wins. More disappointment followed in 2010 but I didn’t and wouldn’t give up on them.
In 2014 it will be no different I will still root for the Azzuri. So you know where I stand this summer. And I hope I have been able to explain to you why I made that call. Who will you be rooting for?