For the 1982 World Cup, Adidas introduced a ball named the Tango. It was the first major design change of a football in a decade. With its circular panels and adidas livery, it was thing of beauty. Myself and my teammates in our small team in Ballinrobe never got to kick one, but a trip to Galway to some place like the Great Outdoors meant we could see it in all its glory and we salivated over it.
The ball cost fifty quid so was well out of our reach, so we took the design, varnished the old footballs we had, and then painted this design onto it. It made us feel great there with our pretend Tango. As we stroked it around with our educated left feet, we felt like we were kings of the world. But in reality, the varnish soon wore off, the paint chipped, and our Mitre ball was shown to be for what it was. A cheap ball that we picked up along the way.
This week, the Irish sporting world got a kick in the behind when it was told by by an independent grouping that our stadia, which are the best this country have ever had, are vastly inferior to those in an African country riven by crime, poverty, and dysfunction. Like our Tango ball, our national stadia have been improved with luxury things like “toilets for the wimmen” and the replacement of most of the cold stone seating that stood like dolmens across the terracing of every stadium in Ireland. But in reality, when the varnish wore off the glossy brochures hailing our suitability to host a 50-game tournament, the majority of the grounds nominated were described as being ramshackle pretend jobs that all needed major refurbishment. Just like our Tango ball.
We were blessed to have super stadia on the sites of Croke Park and Lansdowne Road, stadia that in the case of Croke Park anyway, are the envy of Europe even if it is not used for 330 days of the year. For a country our size, it is a blessing. A rare luxury.
However around the country we are not so fortunate. Even the newest one of them all, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, just opened with many delays and much aplomb, has been told it needs a major upgrade to bring it to international standard. So too our own Pearse Stadium, modernised in pre-Tiger times but still unsuitable for large crowds who can neither park nor be shuttled in with any degree of satisfaction in high summer.
Are we that surprised that our regional stadia are anything other than school standard facilities in other countries? And even at that, most are inferior to school stadia elsewhere. Our rugby team share a stadium with doggie athletics, you have to crawl up the practically one-lane Dyke Road to follow our soccer team, you have to park on a verge and risk your mirrors being clipped to get near Pearse Stadium on match day. Modern thinking dictates that sports facilities are built at locations out of town, like the former airport site, with parking for a few hundred cars and a facility for fans to be shuttled in and out.
What the Rugby World Cup bid showed though was that legislation could be introduced very quickly if the will exists to facilitate this. Maybe we should extend the same pace to some of the more deserving elements. Perhaps too we should look at building from the ground up, a culture that promotes participatory sport as well as being audience driven. We should start with having playgrounds in every village, good all-weather pitches, and courts in every community. Get people out using their lungs. That would be a legacy, but maybe that’s not as sexy as a World Cup.
This week was a reality check for those who think our sporting facilities are up to scratch. In the past we have winged it on Eurovisions with dry ice, misty Clannad-like ballads, and people like Geldof and Neeson doing sentimental voiceovers for a country in which they no longer live. For those of us who choose to live here, this week was galling as our facilities were held up to scrutiny and they failed.
The fact that our sportstars flourish in a country with such a dearth of facilities is a tribute to those individuals and coaches who motivate them. And those who line the poor pitches and hang up bedraggled nets on rickety goalposts.
Imagine how good we could be if we gave everyone the chance to play their sport on decent facilities.
Just imagine. It would mean the world to everyone.