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Dublin: On the streets around Croke Park, the home of Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association, eager fans, young and old, spill out of the pubs on the footpath with a mix of nerves and excitement.
Children on street corners, dressed in the two blues of Dublin, spruik bottled water and packets of crisps. Best make sure you have change on you. It’s definitely cash only.
Colm Basquel of Dublin celebrates after teammate Paddy Small, 10, scored their side’s only goal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin.Credit: Getty
The bus ferrying the Kerry players parts a sea of fans dressed in green and gold and is cheered by all. No boos today. The players bring joy and despair, depending on the result. But they do not get paid. The amateur spirit prevails.
For those who long for the days of suburban football where, long before corporate boxes and soulless stadiums, all that mattered was your team and the fans, I write to tell you not to despair. It still exists.
Just maybe, Australia’s sporting codes could for a moment reflect on what makes this football special. No matter the shape of the ball or the name of the game. This is why football exists.
Thomas Boswell, the American sportswriter, called one of his books Why Time Begins on Opening Day, which neatly grasped the truth that certain moments in the sporting year are inherently dramatic. The All-Ireland football final is that event. It’s also not just the most cherished institutions, but among the most important cultural celebrations.
Dublin supporters before the start of the match.Credit: Getty
This is not an AFL grand final, where paid-up members of clubs miss out on tickets while the business and political world take selfies – and the seats of real fans – and dine out in style. This is a community team for a community. Tickets are as rare as hen’s teeth but go to the clubs.
It’s not an NRL final either, played in some concrete monstrosity in a place where no one wants to go.
It’s long been said if one wishes to understand the Irish, one must see a match. And at this north Dublin ground, you are haunted by ghosts of dead fans and players. The original Bloody Sunday made Croke Park a shrine to Irish nationalism.
There is the Hogan Stand, and “The Hill”, once said to be built on rubble from the Easter Rising of 1916 against the British occupiers. Gaelic games are a cause as much as a sport, where even the stars play unpaid for their counties of birth.
Kerry supporters before the start of hte match.Credit: Getty
The moment of magic came just before the start of the match when, virtually unannounced, came a tribute to Irish singer Sinead O’Connor. Her famous 1990 film clip played on the big screen and brought the crowd to life. The fans on “The Hill” stopped chanting. The stands went quiet as people turned to look at her.
And then, of course, there was the football. It had everything. More than 80,000 people packed into a stadium with no segregation of supporters or need for dividing fences or safety breaks. The noise from start to finish was like nothing I have ever heard. Louder than a Celtic home match, the MCG on preliminary final day or a State of Origin at Lang Park. This, in fact, was Origin on steroids.
On this Sunday, Dublin edged out their rivals, Kerry, to reclaim the title with a 1-15 to 1-13 victory in an utterly captivating match. The closest equivalent, to those foreign to the game, is that of Australian Rules football, but with a round ball and huge rectangular pitch.
It was Dublin’s 31st trophy – seven short of Kerry’s record haul – but a record ninth medal for Dublin captain James McCarthy, Stephen Cluxton and Michael Fitzsimons. All three of those players featured for Dublin in the 2011 final win over Kerry, the success which kick-started the county’s All-Ireland dominance.
A Kerry supporter cheers on his side during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship final match against Dublin .Credit: Getty
There are great characters too. None more fascinating than 41-year Cluxton, a maths and physics teacher and veteran goalkeeper, whose aversion to playing the media game has made him an enigma.
And on the losing side there is David Clifford, who at just 24 years old, is already being called the greatest player in the game’s history. Perhaps, like Aussie rules, this code’s media pact suffers from a lack of global context, but Clifford – a full-forward – moves and looks like a superstar.
He doesn’t shine on this occasion, but there is little doubt of his star quality. He was widely touted a few years back as a prized target of AFL recruiters, but he stayed home, choosing to be a PE teacher at St Brendan’s College in Killarney – his old school. Every time he’s asked, he says he has no regrets.
Still, in Ireland, the fans bitch and moan about their game much like they do in Australia. Lopsided encounters dominate the competition. Powerhouse counties, such as Dublin, have dominated for a decade.
The rules remained in place until fairly recently, when the game has undergone profound changes. AFL, they think, has ruined the game.
“The game I once loved has been reduced to throw ball, no doubt influenced by Australian Rules football,” an Irish broadcaster wrote recently. “It’s a form of basketball now with the emphasis on blanket defences, win at any cost and the destruction of skill and self-expression.”
Perhaps football fans are the same around the world. But for at least one day, every year, this occasion is like nothing else. It’s as good as it gets.
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