There’s still space for innocence and joy as greed infects global sporting circus!

 

Monday-Friday

When our six-year-old, Matthew, glides up with a prepared whisper, it’s usually to ask if he can “borrow mom’s phone.”

  Video games on mobile phones…a phenomenon of our time.

  The other day, he had new (and not fake) news. He had found his moneybox – and it was bulging. When it comes to money, Matthew is obsessed. He loves it. The dilemma is whether to spend or save. Part of him is excited about the promise of all the things money can purchase, another part of him is tempted by the tantalising lure of collecting more. It’s like a tiny Charlie McCreevy and a tiny Michael Noonan are squaring up to one another inside his head.

  Due to recent birthdays, the missing but now relocated moneybox was indeed bulging. And Matthew had decided he wanted to splash out. He’d had enough. He was rejecting austerity. Matthew wanted to buy a soccer goal set.

  A day or two on, and following negotiations which took a predictable course, we arrive at the hard part: the soccer goal set is spread out in front of us in various different parts. Sure enough, on the side of the box were three of the most terrifying words in the English language: ‘Must be assembled.’

  Thankfully, my daughters were on hand to ‘assist with assembly.’ Within 15 minutes or so, we had the soccer goals constructed and, even more impressively, we had no screws or bolts left over.

Something’s trying to kill sport, they say. The suspects include money, drugs, greed. Ultimately it’s greed, I guess. But we all battle on, the sports stars and the fans. Deep down, the fans know that corruption has crept into many sports, that greed thrives in this environment, that some sports are tainted by drugs, and trust has died. But we still want to believe that there is space for innocence and wonder.

  We’re still thrilled by great sporting exploits, by great stars. When it comes to doping, we often turn a blind eye. The huge sums of money within sport, I don’t have a big issue with. Let them reap the benefits of their brilliance. The doping, however, is another matter. This is cheating, morally wrong and – assuming there are clean athletes out there – not having a level playing field just isn’t fair.

  All week there was relentless media hysteria (mostly from the BBC) as Mo Farah and Usain Bolt were bringing their glittering careers to an end at the World Athletics Championships.

  With athletics now almost as tainted as the Tour de France, I wasn’t that bothered by the Mo/Usain hype, and certainly wasn’t checking out the television schedules. I missed Farah’s farewell races but happened to see Bolt finish third in the 100m. Then, on Saturday night, I channel-hopped to the World Championships. It seemed a better alternative than watching Saturday Night with Miriam O’Callaghan, which sounds more like a penance than a pleasure.

  I engaged with the hype. Saturday night’s 4 x 100m Relay Final is, apparently, Bolt’s last ever race. On the closing stretch, as the superstar closes in on the finishing line, he pulls up, injured. It is a poignant end. He has given us wonderful entertainment, but can we believe? Yes, it is widely accepted that the remarkable Bolt is clean, but can we be sure? The legacy left by shamed dopers is that we end up doubting and questioning everyone.

  There are legitimate question marks over the career of Farah, Britain’s middle-distance multiple champion. He has had a close relationship with Alberto Salazar, a coach who is under investigation after multiple claims that he is involved in doping athletes. Who is Mo? A genuinely clean superstar, or cheat? The fans want to believe the fairytale, but many recent fairytales have had damning postscripts.

  I wasn’t sorry to have missed Farah picking up another gold and silver, because who knows whether those medals will sparkle forever or are destined to be tarnished. Too many questions, too much doubt.

The moneyboxes of the Premier League players have been bulging for some time. The new soccer season in England kicks off as the impact of ‘big money’ on the beautiful game grows to new levels of absurdity. Manchester City have spent £220m during the closed season. Brazilian superstar Neymar recently moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for around €222m. His annual salary will be €30m. “My heart told me to move” Neymar is quoted as saying, but it may have been a  misprint – he may have actually said ‘My accountant” or ‘My dad” or “My brain”…

  So, big, astronomical money is fuelling soccer while perhaps also a threat to it. For years, we have been saying that the money madness surrounding soccer cannot continue; yet in reality it’s getting crazier all the time.

  Away from gazing at their moneyboxes and listening to their iPods, the stars of the Premier League like to relax with the odd game of football. It was, in fairness, a thrilling opening weekend, and it’s great to have the soccer back. I’m looking forward to enjoying the fun and games of the Premier League, while the serious business – of getting Leeds United back to the top – continues in The Championship.  

When Tony Keady was in his prime, there were no iPods or primadonnas. I am glad to have seen Keady in action, in the flesh. He was a warrior-like presence at the heart of the defence in the double All-Ireland winning Galway hurling team. In 1987 and ’88 it was a hair-raising experience to watch from ‘The Hogan’ as that swashbuckling Galway half-back line drove the men from the west on to All-Ireland glory. All that Gerry McInerney was missing was a Zorro-like cape. These were great men, chieftains, truly leaders of their tribe. In sport, it was a more innocent time than now. Keady was a true sporting hero. Unlike most of the soccer superstars, he was accessible too, of his place and of his people. It is so sad that this devoted family man and sporting great has been called so early. 

  Fittingly, Cork and Waterford produced a compelling All-Ireland hurling semi-final at the weekend. Waterford’s goal threat was decisive. It sets up a fascinating All-Ireland final between two ravenous teams, both desperate to end their period of exile. 

  On Saturday, in Ennis, more great sporting honesty, more of what draws us to sport. A world away from the doping, the diving, the money and the madness, Roscommon’s U-17 footballers produce a joyous sporting feat: victory over Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Against all the odds, we had assembled the soccer goal set, now rested on the grass on a fine August evening. The break from video games on the mobile phone – I think the technical term is ‘heads stuck in screens’ – may not last, but for now, our son is out in the fresh air enjoying the ‘real-life goals’ and playing with his siblings and cousins.

  It’s not quite clear what they are actually playing – it’s some surreal mixture of soccer, gaelic, rugby and judo, a fusing of sports that would probably interest the promoters of Mayweather v McGregor. At least the kids are running, enjoying fresh air, and scoring goals for fun. The soccer net adds a prestige and status to the kickabout; better, in fairness, than the traditional deployment of two jumpers as goalposts. 

  Beyond, in the outside world, the marvellous but mad sports circus continues. Inside the house, the mobile phones are charging and waiting for (ab)normal service to resume, if it must. But for now, it’s fresh air, fun and daydreaming that reign.

  Far from the sporting circus, we’re in the garden, bending it like Beckham and giving innocence every chance.