About Me

Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Old Head on Broad Shoulders. The Israel Ilunga Interview

“Keep your head down, keep your head down, keep your head down”. The simple advice Israel Ilunga offers to hopeful youngsters across the country who already look up to him as a role model and ask him for advice through social networks at the tender age of eighteen. While the words may seem basic and uninspiring they’re ones that haven’t left his head since his foster parents Desmond and Anne passed them on to him the day before he took to a GAA field for the first time at the age of eleven.

Israel was born just before the Second Congo War, a bitter conflict that claimed the lives of over five million people and failed to come to an abrupt halt despite the introduction of a transitional government in 2003. “My parents tried to hide me from seeing everything around me but I remember all the bad things; children having nothing to eat, going outside and fearing you’re going to get shot”. Family members were involved in the violence that continued to spill over and in 2007, fearing their well-being; the Ilungas fled Africa for Dublin in the hope of a better future.

Israel was placed into foster care immediately and found a new home in Castletown, County Westmeath with the Dowlings. Initially unable to read or write, the Westmeath prospect was slowly integrated into Ireland through the family who nowadays tease him to ensure he never gets too big for his size 12 boots.

There was just one cultural trait he failed to warm to. Coming from a soccer background he couldn’t fathom a sport where people use their hands despite ‘foot’ featuring in the title. “I absolutely hated it. I remember watching Tyrone play a match for the first time and I couldn’t understand why they kept allowing people drag others down”.

Desmond tried and failed to convince Israel to give the sport a try but in the end he was guilt-tripped into participating. “I was over here two or three years”, a wry smile stretching across his face, “when one of my Dad’s friends started getting angry at me; he wouldn’t talk to me when he visited the house until I joined the club, and luckily enough it’s been working out good enough since”.

He enjoyed the experience, but prior to his first match Desmond and Anne, aware that a child of Congolese descent dictating play on the rural pitches of Westmeath would be unique and somewhat unusual sight, sat him down and advised him on how to conduct himself on the field of play in general but particularly should he experience any form of racism. “If I laugh and smile in someone’s face it’s gonna hurt them more than if I hit him in the face”.

Israel’s powerful frame provides a direct contradiction to this theory, but it’s one he and his family firmly believe in. “I used to get angry about it but my foster parents took me apart and that’s the way I do things now. I would never hit a lad, never, it’s not my nature, but I wouldn’t be allowed anyway”, he says with a cheerful exhale. “Even when there’s any bit of pushing, any 50/50 balls, all I can hear from the pitch is my Dad in the stands telling me to calm down, every game!”

Despite feeling that overall he’s been accepted more than he had imagined possible Israel has experienced certain hardships as a result of the colour of his skin. After successfully making the county’s under-14 team management were forced to drop him as some voices raised questions about his age.

Since then however his career has blossomed. He has complete confidence in his own ability and enjoys having the opportunity to mark inter-county players while representing his club. “At the age of seventeen I was one of the main players, starting every senior championship game and marking the likes of Kieran Martin and Callum McCormack. It was crazy but I love a challenge, that’s the best way to learn“.

It’s also not the only way to learn. The defender takes in championship matches in Cavan and Longford as well as his own county in order to study the game and discover how he himself can improve as a player. With this work ethic complimenting his assured personality it should be no surprise he became a fixture at the heart of the Westmeath minor full-back line last season despite having a year to spare at the age-group.

His biggest achievement to date however was leading his school Cnoc Mhuire to the All-Ireland Colleges title in 2013. The fact that he transformed his school’s defense into an impregnable citadel during the final despite carrying a broken hand made the success even more remarkable. These feats help explain why the charismatic Isreal, or Izzy to his friends and family (he jokes that I’m the only person he knows who addresses him by his formal first name), has been embraced and protected in his community.

“The club always back me, there’s not a chance my school manager James Carroll would let me suffer in any way if any form of racism occurred, I run out in Cusack Park and have people cheering my name, I feel incredibly lucky”.

This fortune is compounded by the mature eighteen year olds’ life experience. “We think we have problems, but every time I take to the pitch I say to myself “God, I’m lucky I have this”. If you were to compare it with Congo, kids have nothing, so I play as if it’s going to be my last time playing at any level, I realise how lucky I am”.

Having seamlessly integrated into his community as well as one of Ireland’s most cultural institutions it’s jokingly suggested that he has become a real ‘Paddy’.

“No, jaysus no”, his rich voice declares with an undeniable Midlands’ accent, “but I am proud to say that part of me is Irish. I came over here when I was so young at nine so I’ve got the accent and everything; I play gaa (not to be confused with GAA). I’d be more Irish than I would be African, truthfully”.

This feeling manifests itself in a passionate rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann before the whistle is blown ahead of every game. “I love it, I think there’s nothing better to get you going before a game than the national anthem. I’m getting the opportunity to play Ireland’s game, as a mark of respect you should learn the national anthem, the way I see it you have to. It’s a part of us, it’s ours and it shouldn’t be any different because I was born in Africa”.

Of course without the guidance and protection of his foster family Israel’s path could have been very different. “Looking at sport, they go to every game I play. They wouldn’t miss it”. The Castletown-Finea man isn’t just referring to his parents, he feels cherished by their extended family. “My Grandad nearly had a heart attack when we were playing the All-Ireland, no joke! He’s 79 and he’d be cursing like mad when he’s watching the match, my Granny would be giving out to him! They recorded the match and watched it about 20 times”.

“I’m 18 now, I’m off the books, I can leave and live anywhere I want but this is where I want to be”.

Unsurprisingly this sentiment is echoed with the Dowlings, although they won’t have a prodigious GAA talent to slag and keep in check around the house next year. “I get to go to college next year and I’m lucky enough to be considered for a scholarship”.

The sense of gratitude is easily detectable in his voice. “Ireland has given me a life”, he humbly declares. UCD and Carlow IT have been in contact but Israel is leaning towards Carlow’s GAA Sport and Exercise course as it allows him to pursue a career he’s genuinely interested in. “Football can’t be the be all and end all, you need something to fall back on. I remember listening to Jason Sherlock, one of the greats, speak about losing everything in the space of five seconds through injury and I finally copped on; I’m not always going to have football”.

It’s clear that the young man too reserved to mention the fact that he’s hoping to get home as soon as possible to relax ahead of a trip to Dublin for medical tests in the morning carries an old head on his gargantuan shoulders, a testament not only to himself but also his family. He has been in contact with
Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny over the past year, a figure he aspires to be like and one he believes epitomises everything good about the GAA, or gaa.

“I asked him if he could come down to present the All-Ireland medals to the school and he instantly responded ‘definitely, when is it’? So it was two days after his operation, he was only on crutches and he still came down. Never mind the fact he’s an unbelievable player he still came and I have tremendous respect for him for that. That’s something I want to do when I grow up, drop down to smaller clubs who might not have as many opportunities and give young lads a confidence boost”.

Israel Ilunga has the talent and the personality to become the first of his kind at a significant level of the GAA. No African player has ever made it as far as a Senior Championship game in Croke Park. The history of the GAA is a history of the Irish people and a new page is about to be written.

“Every challenge is an opportunity; you make your own destiny”. Some would say he already has.

*on May 22nd Isreal was granted Irish citizenship after eight long years in Ireland

More than a Club

Available at http://d13122742.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/more-than-a-club/

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

World Cup 2014: Preview

Pelada is more than just kicking and caressing a ball. Pelada is an escape, a release, an opportunity to make a name for yourself across the globe or just around the seemingly horizonless city. Pelada is everywhere Christ the Redeemer can see; on the beaches, sandwiched between the roads that connect millions, (literally) on the slopes of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Pelada is played by the people; the children, the parents, the students, the hopeful, the breadline. Pelada has no curfew or surface; it is played throughout the calendar around the clock on mud, concrete and sand. Pelada, or pick-up football, is watched by all; including the scouts and the dubious agents, and shares it’s name with the word Brazilian men use for naked women. Every Brazilian with the ambition of representing the Selecao participates amongst men and even woman much older than them on their city’s pitches and every so often one captures the world’s attention.

Ó,  ó Neymar, Neymar tá demais, espetacular o Neymar, a tabela com Borges, ninguém para o Neymar, foi embora, limpou o lance, vem golaço Neymar; golaço. Gooooooooool. Sensacional.  Fantástico. Espetacular o gol do Neymar.

The Next Pele and the First Neymar swallows his Santos crest with composure. He knows what he’s just done, right? Everyone else in the stadium thinks they know what happened; their boy-wonder just received an inconvenient pass forty meters out on the touchline and turned it into a gift from the Gods.  He’s evaded his markers (as well as one of the games’ camera technicians) and delicately sliced the Flamengo defence apart with the beauty of Catwoman; yet he almost seems reluctant to celebrate. “Outrageous goal scored, now onto the next one”. He runs towards the stand and shares the moment with one of the brightest financial figures of the 21st Century, the man who instigated his move to Europe and the subsequent collapse of FC Barcelona’s President; his father.

Black cat black kitten. Sex still sells in Brazil, just not as much as Neymar. The Neymar party’s ability to attract lucrative sponsorships was the reason for his prolonged stay in the Brazilian domestic league, with the forward earning European wages thanks to an expanding Brazilian economy. His face adorns billboards for products ranging from cars to sportswear to grooming products; regular superstar activity. His website however allows fans to purchase goods beyond sanity. Mugs and flasks with the Neymar logo on it are available. Couch looking naked? Buy a Neymar cushion. If you move quickly you can purchase an official Neymar bobblehead at the reduced price of $13.99. Need a notebook to write up a shopping list for your next visit to the 22 year old’s site? You get the jist. You can now even score like Neymar; his name has become so popular with consumers that it now adorns a brand of condoms that rose onto the market last month.

He is the face of a World Cup clouded in despair and anger. While the World Cup remains a secondary thought on the eve of the tournament the host nation can still expect vociferous backing from their compatriots in the stands as they embark upon a month-long tour around Brazil ahead of a final in the Maracana on July 13th; a final they are expected to win. This month could be the difference between whether or not Neymar can sell 1,283 special gems created from the carbon contained in his hair in fifty years’ time. Naturally he isn’t the sole protagonist at the tournament and there is an array of teams hoping to leave their mark on the tournament.

One potential second round opponent for Brazil are the Netherlands, led by a Manchester bound Louis van Gaal who in truth will be relieved he has found a new job ahead of the tournament. While it’s almost a cliché at this stage, this Dutch team is far weaker than previous groups. Their backline, albeit a settled unit, is unfortunately comprised of not only players from the Eredivisie, but also Ron Vlaar. Their opponents in Group B include Spain and an exciting, effervescent Chile side who drew with their Latin rivals in an enthralling friendly last year. Spain are attempting to stretch the limits of their own greatness by winning a fourth consecutive major title and a second World Cup after their success in South Africa four years ago. While their success has been unparalleled by anyone aside from Brazil at the turn of the 1960’s, it’s impossible to consider them anything but underappreciated. Perhaps they didn’t attack with the vigour or the tempo or the Messi of Guardiola’s Barcelona but they were stifled by overly cautious adversaries and ultimately they were too pragmatic for the neutral. Their performances in last summer’s Confederations Cup shouldn’t be ignored, where La Roja lost out to a rabid Brazil side who benefitted from an extremely lenient referee.

Oh yeah, Australia are there too.

Ivory Coast’s ‘Golden Generation’ have one last chance to endear themselves to Diego Simeone by actually achieving something and not meekly surrender like a kitten in the Safari the minute the pressure is on, while their group rivals Colombia, or the new Belgium, will be expected to impress on their first showing in the tournament in sixteen years.

In Group D you can’t help but feel the perverse pleasure Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez will derive from tormenting the English defence will be dwarfed only by Roy Hodgson’s pride at predicting his own side’s downfall. To be fair aside from Hodgson and the uninspiring Wayne Rooney of post-2009 this is for the most part a ‘new’, modern England. Youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley have the potential to play on the international scene over the next decade. However regardless of the turf specialists or the personalized energy drinks catering for each players’ electrolyte need or Steve Peters (Brazil first brought a sports psychiatrist to the World Cup in 1958) this tournament has arrived a tad too early and we should expect to see 50 years of hurt manifest in a more ambitious campaign in France 2016.

Didier Deschamps’ unusually youthful side are still on the slow road to recovery after Raymond Domenech’s tumultuous reign at the helm (apologies to the word tumultuous). The squad includes Lucas Digne and the exceptional Paul Pogba from last year’s victorious Under 20 World Cup campaign, while Raphael Varane and the previously banished Antoine Griezmann have also travelled to South America. While the exclusion of Samir Nasri has been dissected already (“Fuck France and fuck Deschamps” is a brief synopsis), Les Bleus’ hopes have been boosted by a relatively easy passageway to the quarter-finals and should they make it that far they are unlikely to surrender in the most French fashion as they did against Spain in Euro 2012 when a petrified Laurent Blanc’s squad selection essentially guaranteed his side would finish goalless.

Argentina’s fate rests in the feet of Lionel Messi whose performances have dipped over the past year partly due to his determination to enter the World Cup unscathed. His manager Alejandro Sabella has finally discovered a system that optimises his number ten’s influence on the game; with both Gonzalo Higuian and Messi’s best friend in the squad Sergio Aguero playing in front of La Pulga and allowing him more space between the lines. Everything has been put in place to ensure Messi can lead the team; with “el jugador del pueblo”, or player of the people Carlos Tevez omitted from the international squad due to his disruptive influence and ability to create tension between the fans and his rival forward, as displayed during the 2011 Copa America. 

While his rival Cristiano Ronaldo is often portrayed as the ultra-competitive warrior, the Argentine’s relentless need to succeed appears to go under the radar. He barks orders around the Camp Nou every match like a Napoleon syndrome sufferer, belittling teammates like Alexis Sanchez and formerly David Villa to the extent that the indifference between them is obvious to the naked eye. When he spends time playing FIFA with his friends he is always Barcelona, and always makes the virtual Lionel captain (even Zlatan resists this temptation). Brazil 2014 is arguably his last chance to mend the bridges between himself and the Argentine people. Regardless of how many pounds of red meat he ships from Argentina to Catalunya or the fact his family still own the house he spent his childhood in; it’s impossible for many to consider the introvert a compatriot due to the fact he left for Barcelona at such a young age. In truth this perception couldn’t be further from the truth, but the only way the feeling will be reciprocated is if he grabs his side, ailing with an average midfield and a weak defence, by the collar to victory like El Diego in 1986.

The only man with a big enough ego to match Messi sits in Group G. Fresh off upstaging Gareth Bale’s Decima winning goal in the Champions League Final with his own uncomfortable, almost embarrassing display of pretension, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal enter the tournament with a solid team but again lacking a centre forward, as they have since Paule… well, Eusebio. Ronaldo should relish the opportunity and welcome the fact he has no equals in the team, nobody else can steal his limelight. While Xabi Alonso and even Zinedine Zidane sprinted to the corner of Estadio da Luz after Gareth Bale’s winner last month Cristiano stood in the centre circle looking as desolate and inconsolable as the Atletico players. In Brazil if he fails to turn in a match-winning performance, a scenario which could be partly excused by the niggles he’s carried over the last two months, no other hero will stand up and be counted; his team will be out.

Pre-pre-tournament favourites Germany are first round opponents for the Iberians, although they appear less formidable than six months ago due to a series of injuries to key players. Marco Reus is out completely, while the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Sami Khedira are far from 100%. No German manager has ever survived three tournaments without reaching the pinnacle never mind four, meaning Jogi Low’s recent two year extension could be rendered redundant if his team don’t over-achieve and reach the Maracana next month. He appears to have settled on creating a pastiche of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side, with Lahm likely to begin the tournament in midfield despite Cristiano lurking out wide in the opening game. The noise coming from the camp is that relations between the Bayern and Dortmund camps are smoother than Poland and Ukraine two years ago where Toni Kroos in particular was a disruptive influence; although this may change once the tournament begins and players are picking splinters out of their arse on the bench.

Low however is not even the German with the most difficult job in the tournament. Jurgen Klinsmann is charged with the responsibility of shaping US soccer. He must create a culture, a mentality, a style, a calendar and a development path while transmitting his “you play for Fulham you haven’t made shit” attitude to the USA. He has put his neck on the line by banishing the US leader Landon Donovan, a man he could never quite understand after the captain took a much needed mental break from football to travel Cambodia amongst other things. Not only is he out to alter the minds of the country’s footballers, but also the men who make their bread or scan their groceries.

“By no means do we have the social environment where a professional player loses a game and the next day he gets bothered by the fans when he goes to the butcher, the baker, the supermarket. We don’t have that kind of accountability and this is what we would love to have one day. But it will still take a few years.”

Frankly, all the teams mentioned so far may as well not travel though, because Belgium are going to win the World Cup (they won’t). Somehow they’ve jumped up to the fifth favourites ahead of Italy and Portugal. All cynicism aside the squad has depth and oozes quality in a number of positions, while they are considered to have one of the friendlier schedules of all the teams in Brazil, playing in three of the cooler stadiums in the group stage. They do face the prospect of a second round tie with Germany or Portugal however and like England, this tournament may have come a couple of years too soon.

Brazil however are here and now. The nation is still haunted by the last time they hosted the tournament where their premature celebrations inspired Uruguay in the final match. At the back David Luiz and Thiago Silva are as enjoyable as a centre-half partnership can be, while there will be a huge onus on an out of form and jaded Oscar to link the defence to the attack. Felipe Scolari will be confident fatigue should not be an issue; Brazil have always considered themselves ahead of the rest of the world with regards to physical preparation. Paulo Paixao, responsible for a fresh Brazil side in 2002, is again in charge of each players’ individual fitness programme.

It all comes back to one man though, Neymar. His first season in Europe has been mixed. While he has scored important goals against Atletico Madrid and improved certain aspects of his game (for example his penetrative runs. His sprint in behind the Real Madrid defence to earn a penalty at the Bernabeu this season was exceptional), his form dropped off after the forced resignation of Sandro Rosell. Injuries limited his time on the pitch, and when he did it became clear he was placing too much of an emphasis on issues away from the ball. Any player who is forced to expose his underwear five times on camera during a Champions League quarter final needs to reassess where his priorities lie.

Saudade. A word without direct translations Brazilians use to explain the state of tragically longing for an absent person or thing; unaware whether it will return or not. At times this season it has appeared apt to describe Neymar’s stuttering club form.

With Brazil however he has continued to shine, making a mockery of such an idea; playing from the left and taking advantage of the space inside that Fred creates. In the yellow jersey of the Selecao he is consciously determined to win. Another Sao Paulo state native Ayrton Senna once wondered about his own capabilities. "There are moments that seem to be the natural instinct that is in me. Whether I have been born with it, or whether this feeling has grown in me more than other people, I don't know, but it is inside me and it takes over with a great amount of space and intensity." When you watch Neymar for Brazil you are in awe of how naturally gifted he is, how the innovation flows from his toes effortlessly. If he plays well, Brazil will win. He is that good.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

B'ode to a Grecian Urn.

In Ireland we accept brave defeats. We tolerate constant underachievement. We never ask the difficult questions that need to be asked; why can we never take the next step?

Two men bucked this trend, one more successfully than the other. Roy Keane and Brian O’Driscoll’s public image couldn’t be further apart. Brian O’Driscoll is Blackrock, blonde locks, Adidas; Roy Keane Mayfield, psychopathic skinhead, Diadora.

Both men however shared a complete aversion toward defeat; both men possessed a forceful will, a need even, to avoid defeat, to lead the weak to the pinnacle.

The arguments over which of the two titanic personalities is Ireland’s greatest sportsperson is undoubtedly moot; the only thing more difficult than comparing athletes across eras is comparing them across sports.

Keane played the far more competitive, global game of football compared to rugby, a plantation sport. In terms of difficulty rugby is streets behind. For a start you can hold the ball in your two hands, the most human of traits. Australia’s Chris Latham, a World Cup winner and one of the finest full-backs of the last fifteen years, only took up the sport while in college at 18.

That is part of the reason for the Irish thirteen’s greatness though. Keane made a complicated game easy, but the boy from Clontarf slot into the most feral of sports and sprinkled magic every time he stood on the pitch. He was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus scribbled onto the back of a cubicle door in a seedy pub.

He regularly dropped our jaws with moments of inspiration (tragically, often in defeat). In Perth during the 2003 World Cup he fit perfectly into the corner like a postage stamp after evading the quarter man, three-quarters cyborg winger Wendell Sailor. He twinkled his way through the world champion (Qantas) Wallabies in Brisbane with the Lions in 2001. He constantly sidestepped French full-backs before touching down under the posts, released new, unimaginable offloads from his sleeve with such regularity it rendered them normal. He could find a straight line down a packed Grafton Street. The RDS never saw Maradona, but it did see O’Driscoll juggling the ball over the line against Wasps while he was turning Leinster into the most formidable dynasty of European rugby (essentially a toddler, but still). He even passed the ball to himself once.

His talent was only half the story though. When Ireland needed him he duly obliged. Shane Horgan says when Ireland toured the southern hemisphere they became “O'Driscoll and 14 other muppets”. The All Black’s (probably correctly) saw the touring Lions of 2005 as 66 muppets and O’Driscoll, so Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu removed him with the ruthlessness of Stalin and Beria. The Dubliner once cut short medical treatment to haul the 6’1’’, 235 pounds frame of Marcus Horan to the ground. Not only is BOD or Drico Irish rugby’s greatest ever 13, he’s the best 7 the country has produced too.

Cowardice wasn’t the motive behind clutching back the natty dreadlocks of George Smith, the pragmatism his teammates often lacked but O'Driscoll had in abundance was. “You came to the pitch as a second-class rate Newton Faulkner so this is fair game”. The captain was the catalyst of the golden generation’s sole career Grand Slam. He crossed the line in four of the five games; was the jump leads needed after half time in Cardiff, drop-goaled against England before scoring a priceless try two minutes after it looked like he would be substituted following a late Delon Armitage hit.

But frankly, for a player of his calibre, with a more than capable side cast, one championship is a negligible return. World Cups brought disappointment; you could argue the landscape of Irish rugby is exactly the same as it was before he exploded onto the international scene fourteen years ago. A second championship is required for the O’Driscoll era to stick out to a scanning eye looking through the Six Nations roll of honour. A second championship is essential to shake off the nearly-men tag the country's rugby team wear without the disdain they should.

The sporting gods have a tendency to give the legends empty, cruel endings. The final international appearances of figures like Zinedine Zidane and Don Bradman was arguably their nadir. Roy Keane didn’t even get the chance (the SPL counts only as oblivion). Looking through the statistics, the most fitting end for one of the finest rugby players ever would be a two point defeat in the Stade de France. We might be used to the pain of defeat, its regularity might soften the potential blow to us, but that’s just another Irish trait alien to the gargantuan Brian O’Driscoll.