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Ciarán Murphy: Let’s not hear it for the underdogs

I’d prefer to see the best 16 teams in the world in the last 16 – and I don’t even want too many shocks in that round

I hate underdogs. In the competitions that really matter to me, the last thing I want to see is the big teams getting beaten.

I was sitting at home watching Argentina, and Lionel Messi, lose to Saudi Arabia 2-1 on Tuesday morning, and I was roaring my head off for an Argentinian equaliser. Does this make me history’s greatest monster?

Now Saudi Arabia, as a country, is no one’s idea of a plucky underdog, and while that might be unfair on the players who are representing that country and who played magnificently against Messi and company, I’m afraid that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

The Iranian players made their feelings about the hardline Islamic regime running their country quite clear 24 hours before – there exists no such visible movement for change in Saudi Arabia.


Later on Tuesday, Australia took the lead against France, and while I was thrilled by the idea of them taking the lead, I was still desperate for a French win. The goal might inject a little bit of urgency, that’s fine. Put a rocket up them, no problem. But for goodness sake, France, don’t do anything stupid like lose this game. Having already run the risk of an early exit for Messi, the last thing we needed was Mbappé eyeing the exit door.

When it comes to the World Cup, or the All-Ireland football and hurling championships, just give me the best teams going up against each other, as often as possible. There are of course exceptions . . . but exceptions that nevertheless fit into my rigidly-enforced overall sporting moral code.

When a team has been dominating for years, like the Kilkenny hurlers or the Dublin footballers, then I will welcome an underdog win – and one that actually knocks them out, not the pyrrhic victory of the provincial final or semi-final – because that increases the sporting uncertainty of the competition.

But Saudi Arabia qualifying out of their World Cup group actually diminishes the sporting uncertainty of the competition, because they’ll just get hammered in the round of 16.

They managed three shots and scored two goals, and Argentina had three goals ruled out for offside. They bought their ticket and they took their chances, but that doesn’t seem like a solid long-term plan to go all the way in the World Cup.

No, I want the best 16 teams in the world in the last 16, and I don’t want too much in the way of shocks even in that round.

The greatest day of GAA shocks in recent memory was Cavan beating Donegal, and Tipperary beating Cork in the 2020 Covid championship. It was without doubt the most dramatic day of provincial football in years, without the backdoor. Of course, I wept bitter tears that day.

The only underdog win I wanted back in 2020 was for the Dubs to be beaten, because they had won the previous five All-Irelands. They were under new management, and I was waiting for someone to lift the bonnet of this new Dessie Farrell creation and see what was underneath.

Back then, we still believed in Donegal, we still believed in Michael Murphy. We thought with Kerry having already been beaten by Cork (another day of tears and recrimination in my house), that Donegal might have been our last, best hope of a new champion.

And then they go and lose to Cavan.

Neither Tipperary nor Cork were ever going to give Dublin much trouble, so I was able to more fully engage with the idea of a shock being the sort of thing that people could broadly support while watching that Munster final in a deserted Páirc UÍ Chaoimh.

But Kerry and Donegal not being in the All-Ireland semi-finals was just patently a bad thing. Lord knows we had little enough to be getting excited about back then.

One afternoon’s pleasure watching those two wins for Cavan and Tipperary, and all we had to show for it by 7pm that day was a month of an anticlimax between then and Dublin’s inevitable All-Ireland success. This is no one’s idea of a good time, surely.

Of course, there is another wrinkle. If, for instance, my beloved Galway had won the Connacht title seven days before that day of drama in the winter of 2020, might my attitude towards a team in Division Three winning the Munster title have been modified somewhat?

If Ireland had actually beaten Spain in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, would I still have been shouting for Italy to beat plucky hosts (and soon-to-be recipient of some very, very lenient refereeing) South Korea two days later?

It may well in fact be the case that my attitude towards underdogs is heavily dependent on whether I have a dog of any kind in the broader fight. If my crowd can be the unwitting recipient of the benefits of a shock win, then I’m broadly in favour. If I’m watching dispassionately, then I’m sorry, I want no part in them.

This is of course intellectually specious, emotionally bankrupt, self-serving, and mean-spirited – in short, what sport is all about.