Hope of the Hopeless

Persistence is futile
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Allow me to set the mood. Until recently, next door had a cat. Technically they still have him—it's just that they now keep him two feet beneath their back garden. In his pre-death state, he was a narky bugger. He was the kind of cat who would let you stroke him and then bite your finger to show you who was boss. This made you suspicious of him, which made him even more suspicious of you, and on it would go, an endless cycle of cross-species contempt. You'd open the back door and see him there, glaring at you; you'd glare back, and a disrespectful distance would be kept. But in his last days, the old bastard acted strangely. When you opened the back door, he'd come rushing in. Maybe he was seeking protection from the ruthless cat-on-cat fights in which he was now a guaranteed loser. Maybe he just wanted somewhere warm and comfortable to draw his terminal. It was a sad scene. The next day, his owners were asking around for a spade and a pickaxe.

So yeah, Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland lost 6-1 at home to Germany last Friday. I'm pretty sure it was six, anyway—at some blurry point in the second half, proceedings took on a woozy, surreal quality. Germany were queuing up to shoot, scoring with dreamlike ease as if the ball were made of cloud and its trajectory a rainbow spraying a mist of golden kittens. They didn't even bother celebrating properly, no doubt too blissed out to do anything but smile a goofy smile and walk back to their own half to do it all again. Or maybe they were just embarrassed. Because Germany were very, very good, whereas Ireland were ... well, bad doesn't seem strong enough; it doesn't have the heft to convey the precise quality of Ireland's next-door's-terminally-ill-cat display. They looked beyond redemption, seeking somewhere to lay themselves down and wait until it was all over.

On the plus side, it was a record home defeat for Ireland, so at least we got to see history in the making, right?

Those of you who could stomach my bellyaching may recall my dispatches during the summer, when Ireland played in the European Championships and became the first team to finish 17th in a 16-team tournament. (You can relive said howls in every pitiful detail by clicking on my name above and scrolling down to May and June—if you dare.) But things have gotten worse since then, which is some achievement.

The worst thing about it all is that once, in Trapattoni's first two years in charge, there was hope. In the second leg of the 2010 World Cup play-off against France, Ireland turned in one of their greatest performances. It ended, um, iffily, but defeat notwithstanding, it offered up (to anyone not busy boycotting the baguette rack and people called Henry) a vision of a brilliant future. It was full of life; it was bold, even daring at times. Ireland tried to make the game their own. The performance was laced with some desperation, it's true (France had won the first leg). But the task now was surely to use it as a reference point, to figure out how to replicate its spirit and technicalities without having to inflict pain upon themselves first.

But from the Euro 2012 qualifiers on, they started doing the opposite: they inflicted the pain and reaped no benefit. I never thought it possible for a team to play with a complete absence of style, but Trapattoni's Ireland have managed it. I don't just mean "style" in an approving way: I mean any style whatsoever. The fierce desire to try not to play any part in determining the shape of the game is impressive. (Of course, a kick in the head is impressive.) Everything is determined by how the opposition want to play, and how lucky they feel. It's rope-a-dope without the retaliation. It's not even ugly.

Ireland played almost all of their qualifying opponents this way, from Russia to Andorra. In the group phase, there wasn't a single match in which you could say that Ireland actually played well. There wasn't a single match in which you could say that Ireland played at all. Ireland faced enough poor opposition that qualification was nonetheless secured, as was a fatally bad habit, which brought Ireland down in Poland.

Of course it did. Looked at rationally, Ireland's Euros were utterly predictable. The only reason to have believed otherwise was because of that last residual smear of hope at the bottom of the jar: hope based on no evidence, that get-through-the-day-and-wait-for-a-bright-tomorrow kind of hope. With that rinsed away by the Euros, July was the natural time for Trapattoni to go, or be made go. But he decided to stay on his massive contract, half of which is paid for by the billionaire businessman Denis O'Brien. It's so big, the cash-starved Football Association of Ireland seemingly couldn't budge him. So the groove which became a rut is now a trench. The terrible Trap puns which have plagued the Irish sports pages for four years finally have their shining moment.

Last month, Ireland opened their World Cup qualifying group with a deeply, deeply awful effort against sixth seed Kazakhstan. Two late goals, which were presumably occasioned by Trapattoni furtively swigging an entire bottle of holy water, sealed a win for the worse team. And then there was Germany.

And then there was Trapattoni, yet again saying that there were no excuses, before offering a list of them: Germany are invincible, I had too many players injured, my players didn't do what I told them to do, my players are crap anyway, what do you expect me to do about it?To people suggesting he should go, he replies that one bad game doesn't make a crisis. Maybe this is a way forward for management, Trapattoni's version of Zeno's tortoise paradox: if one bad game isn't a crisis, then neither is an infinite succession of one-bad-games. All your problems solved with just one simple twist of logic and a big pile of bullshit.

Diana Moskovitz's excellent piece hereabouts on being a fan of baseball's failingest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, reminded me of one of my favourite words in the American sports lexicon: futility. (In my experience at least, it's more often used over there than it is here.) Diana doesn't invoke it—she seems too optimistic of disposition, or maybe twenty years of misery forces you to be optimistic against reason. But futile is the hefty word I was looking for way back in paragraph 2. For the poor, suffering fan (because that's what this is really about), there's nothing to cling on to. Trapattoni's defenders have claimed that given what he has to work with, he's done as might be expected—that to demand more is unrealistic and the product of an entitled mindset. But that's not the point at all. It's so, so not it. The team is failing to fulfil the most basic demand of the fan, and surely of themselves: to do something. Anything. To show they realise that every match is a gamble of sorts and to risk something in the immediate term, instead of risking everything in the long term. To show some sign of life. To give hope. To give false hope. To give hope that promises everything even when you know it'll deliver nothing, but you don't care because you got to fool yourself for a second or two. I was going to say "to do something to make the spirit soar" (I mistakenly typed "sore" just then), but things are so desperate now I'd settle for the spirit doing that crap David Blaine levitation trick. Or tripping over itself. Or just twitching.

All hope in Trapattoni's Ireland died in the summer. The listlessness and lack of fight are too ingrained for him to reverse. But there he remains, trying the same things over and over again and ... what? Expecting different results? Does he even care anymore? Surely he can tell the difference between a live animal and a re-animated corpse?

Ireland play the Faroe Islands tonight. Nothing good can come of this game. They might win in by-now traditional style, in which case it's same old same old same old same old. They might win more emphatically, which you could say is just one step up from the minimum requirement when you're playing the team of a country whose entire population could fit into your national stadium. Or they might lose. In which case... Well, rumour has it the FAI are looking to get rid of Trapattoni this week regardless. But it's impossible to be triumphal about the prospect. We're all a bit bewildered right now. We need a lie down.

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