Italia 90: 'I missed it... I was in Italy'
The World Cup of 25 years ago gave an Ireland mired in recession a sense of hope and it was the greatest party the country has ever had. We recall a glorious adventure that was about much more than just football
Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30
In the summer of 1990, Ireland was a country on the verge of mass hysteria. Modern Ireland may have witnessed historic events in the past four decades - the violence of war and the tranquillity of peace; boom followed by spectacular bust - but no public event engaged the country with such emotional intensity.
Legendary columnist Con Houlihan, who was in Italy for the duration, famously quipped afterwards: "Italia 90? I missed it... I was in Italy at the time''.
And for those who are old enough to the recall the wonderful madness of it all, that sums it up perfectly.
The whole nation appeared to be engulfed in a joyous celebration, apart from one or two contrarian souls who continued mowing the lawn.
It prompted some to speculate about the chaos that would ensue if we ever actually win the World Cup. Would we survive the hangover?
Even our own columnist Mary Kenny, not the most devoted football follower, was so overcome with excitement when Ireland defeated Romania in a penalty shoot-out to get to the quarter-final that she ordered flowers for Packie Bonner's mother.
She herself wondered at the time: "Has the entire country gone mad?"
In the folk memory of that summer, the sun always shone as we came out on to the street to celebrate.
The Ireland-Romania match on June 25 - we had opened our account with a one-all win over England on the 11th - happened on a Monday afternoon. The nation stopped work. Factories, offices, shops and government departments closed early in the afternoon. Buses did not move. Tension was so high that fans with heart conditions were advised to avoid watching matches by the eminent cardiac surgeon Maurice Neligan. Otherwise they faced the danger of dropping dead from sheer nervous excitement.
People turned up at dental surgeries for appointments only to find that their dentist had flown off to Italy. Concert halls had to shut down. A gig by Prince, one of the stars of that era, was cancelled because we all seemed to be obsessed with the World Cup.
The Irish Press offered a tongue-in-cheek guide giving excuses for not turning up for work. They included the somewhat implausible: "I'm allergic to green stout."
Most seemed to watch the matches at local pubs. Every housing estate was decked out in flags and bunting - green, white and orange adorned shopfronts and lamp-posts.
For those who couldn't join the 30,000 fans who made it to Italy, the RDS was the place to be, and 5,000 people gathered there to watch the matches.
Ireland's matches are not remembered for their footballing artistry, and in fact we did not win a match in regulation time. We found ourselves in the second round after three draws against England, Egypt and Holland, and having scored just two goals. And then in the Romania match, it all came down to the two last penalties in a shoot-out. Romanian Daniel Timofte (See Pages 4/5) scuffed his penalty and Packie Bonner saved.
Sean Diffley, in the following day's Irish Independent, realised the historic significance:
"So, can you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stood on the moon. Or when the crowds stormed through the Berlin Wall?
"Perhaps not. The great moments of history tend to fade like over-exposed watercolours. But you will never forget, will you, where you were when Packie Bonner saved that penalty?"
Then, as David O'Leary scored with the decisive final kick, the entire country seemed to make a collective leap into the air.
In the RDS they started chanting: "If you love Packie Bonner clap your hands."
Elsewhere around the country, people spilled out on to the street, jumping, singing, dancing and waving flags. Women had tricolour-painted faces.
In the centre of Dublin, a cacophony of car horns drowned out the shouts of "Olé, Olé, Olé". Cars full of supporters did laps of both sides of the street, and elated fans jumped into the Anna Livia fountain and splashed about.
Standing on O'Connell Street wearing a green plastic eye shade on his head, the Labour TD Ruairí Quinn said: "I have never seen such spontaneous delirium and delight."
This sudden outburst of enthusiasm was seen in Dublin Castle where Charles Haughey's government was hosting an EU summit. Even Mrs Thatcher, then the British prime minister, watched the penalty shoot-out, and after Charles Haughey saw the final penalty, he danced a jig in the castle courtyard.
The normally taciturn Taoiseach hugged a reporter and said: "I'm absolutely over the moon."
But the real story was unfolding on the streets and in the pubs.
The madness of Italia 90 was typified by the story of a proud father-to-be called Kevin. Declan Lynch's book Days of Heaven tells how Kevin was down in his local pub watching the dramatic shoot-out when the call came through from a neighbour that his pregnant wife was going into labour at home.
In the era before the arrival of the new man, he replied in the true spirit of a fan: "Tell her I'll be up when the penos are over!"
True to his word he then rushed home and the baby was well on its way as he drove through the crowded streets.
As she writhed in agony, he looked at the riotous scenes in the centre of the city centre, and remarked: "Where would you get it, eh?"
By the time the couple were in O'Connell Street, traffic had slowed to a crawl. She was weeping with agony.
A sympathetic reveller saw her in distress and stuck his beery head through the open window: "You're alright there missus, sure didn't I shed a few tears meself."
So did the excitement of the national team's success in this period ultimately contribute to the recovery of the Irish economy? That is still a topic for debate among economists.
During Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked what the impact of the French Revolution in 1789 was. According to folklore, Zhou replied that it was 'too early to say'.
Twenty-five years after Italia 90, it may still be too early to say. There is no clear agreement among economists about whether sporting success helped us to come out of recession, ultimately leading to the Celtic Tiger boom.
John Considine, lecturer in economics at UCC, says: "There is some research showing that it helped the country, but it is not conclusive."
Dr Considine says the start of our economic recovery coincided with a period of sporting success, which got under way with the victory in the Tour de France in 1987 and continued with qualification for the European Football Championships in 1988. And then came the World Cup in Italy.
Not long before Italia 90, the Economist magazine carried a cover describing Ireland as the "poorest of the rich", with unemployment over 15pc and soaring emigration.
Whatever about the effects on the economy, Italia 90 helped to rid us of a national inferiority complex.
Jimmy Rabbitte in the Roddy Doyle film The Commitments offered an insight into our mindset at the time: "Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe."
The World Cup offered us relief from a crisis that was a much darker stain on the country's reputation than the bleak economy - the Troubles in the North.
There was a strong feeling at the time that misguided, violent republicans had sullied our international reputation, and the 30,000 fans in Italy had gone a long way to redeeming it.
One has to remember that at this time the IRA were still planting bombs and killing civilians.
The fans, on the other hand, were described as "ordinary decent Irish" by Sean Diffley in the Irish Independent. At that time expressions of patriotic pride had been problematic, but the World Cup helped us to seize back the tricolour, and forge a new type of national identity. While every drama has to have its heroes, like Packie Bonner and Jack Charlton, it also has to have a villain - and it came in the form of Eamon Dunphy, the star pundit of RTÉ's football coverage.
In recent years, he has tended to play the clown, but in the frenzied atmosphere of Italia 90, Dunphy became, for a time, public enemy number one.
Dunphy mania reached fever pitch after his punditry on the Ireland-Egypt game, when he said: "We should be ashamed about the way we went about the game," and then threw down his pen in disgust.
This was wrongly conveyed to Jack Charlton as him saying he was ashamed to be Irish, leading to a blazing row.
Ireland eventually went down 1-0 to Italy in the quarter-final in Rome. As Dunphy returned home, his car was surrounded at Dublin airport.
An angry mob rocked his car and he was showered with insults - "Dunphy, you f***ing bastard."
Inevitably, fairweather fans jumped on the World Cup bandwagon - and none more so than Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who had not been known to attend football matches before that.
He paraded on the pitch in Rome after the quarter-final, and glad-handled the players, some of whom did not appear to know who he was.
Tony Cascarino was famously unfamiliar with the word Taoiseach, and thought he ran a "tea shop". The success of the World Cup and the welcome party of 500,000 people that greeted the team on its return did not save Haughey, and he was forced to leave office in the following year amid a welter of scandals.
Italia 90 gave us a sense of hope, and if nothing else it was the greatest national party the country ever had. We tried to recreate that atmosphere when we qualified for World Cups in 1994 and 2002, but somehow it was never quite the same.