Sunday 23 July 2017

'A whirlwind week that ended with me being hungover on the way to the airport' - Joe Lapira on getting his one Ireland cap

Joe Lapira, then (left) and now (right)
Joe Lapira, then (left) and now (right)
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Most Irish footballers begin their international careers in Ballsbridge, Dublin, where the translucent Aviva Stadium sits atop the remnants of the old Lansdowne Road like a crash-landed spacecraft.

Others join the elite on the continent, in Budapest or Bucharest or another European city, making their entrance into a hostile battleground as Ireland fight for qualification to a major tournament.

And then there are the poor unfortunate souls – like current stars Robbie Brady and Darren Randolph – who first get the nod in one of those purgatorial encounters against Oman, the Irish football equivalent of the JobBridge scheme for prospective internationals.

But one improbable Irish cap eschewed all those pathways and began his journey into international football in an equally unlikely location: George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

It was the summer of 2007, and Joe Lapira – a scrappy 20-year-old collegiate soccer star – found himself flying from the Deep South of the United States of America to join up with Steve Staunton’s Irish team in New Jersey.

“All the players flew in together from Ireland - I flew in from Houston, Texas,” he tells Independent.ie.

“I get to the airport and I don't have anyone's contact information. I'm thinking, 'what the hell', because nobody has come to pick me up. I had to call my uncle and he called some people. The guy from the FAI had gone to the international arrivals. He had assumed I was an international player coming in to play for Ireland. He was wrong.”

That was the start of Lapira’s dream week and although almost ten years have passed since he came on after 86 minutes against Ecuador for his only international cap, his brief time in green remains a vivid memory, both for him, and many Irish supporters.

The Irish-American from Lake Charles, Louisiana - who is now back home selling medical supplies - had been invited into the squad for the week-long American summer trip off the back of a stellar season for his college, Notre Dame, which saw him win the National Player of the Year award.

He admits that he was ‘a bit of a fan’ as he trained - and eventually played – alongside some of Irish football’s biggest stars, and it is exactly that part of the story which resonates with so many.

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20 May 2007; Republic of Ireland's Joe Lapira, left, and Alan Bennett during squad training. Republic of Ireland Squad Training,Mont Clair University, Secaucus New Jersey, USA. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Lapira was the first amateur footballer to play for Ireland since 1964, and his international cameo raised a question for Irish football fans everywhere: What would it be like to spend a week with the Boys in Green?

“I thought I was just going to be training with the guys,” Lapira says.

“I think I might have tried to fly around the Ireland training session like a maniac but then we did a drill when I went in the middle and I was nutmegged like 45 times in a row.

“Kevin Kilbane was there. I was like 'holy God, I watched you on TV the other day'. There were loads of guys there that I watched on a weekly basis and others like Shane Long. It is crazy that I was in the same team as them for a short amount of time.”

With his long hair and scraggly beard, Lapira didn’t exactly fit the profile of an Irish footballer, and given how little was known about his backstory over here, it was hard to know how deep his Irish roots ran – whether he was a bona fide Irishman or one of the ‘my great-great-grandfather was from Ireland’ brigade.

Lumping him into a group with the latter would be doing Lapira a grave disservice – he remembers roaring on his future international manager at USA 94 in his aunt’s house in Ireland and although he’s too young to have held his breath along with the nation during Packie Bonner’s heroics at Italia 90, Lapira proves his fan credentials when he recounts meeting the legendary net-minder during his fleeting stint with the team.

“My uncle worked for the FAI and he got me Packie Bonner's autograph when I was a kid,” he says.

“I had it in my wallet growing up and then I lost it and was devastated. The biggest thing for me when I was with the team 15 years later was getting into an elevator and Packie Bonner was standing there with me. I couldn't even open my mouth, I was just like 'holy crap, Packie Bonner is here beside me'.”

After swapping stories with the squad throughout the week – he peppered them with questions about what it was like playing professionally in England, while they returned fire with queries on balancing education with football and his job prospects after college – Staunton broke some unexpected news to Lapira.

“The day before the match I asked if I needed to get a ticket so I could sit in the stand for the game,” Lapira says.

“They said, 'no you're going to be in the squad'. I just thought, 'holy s**t, I'm going to get an Ireland jersey, I'm going to get to wear it and I'm going to get to sit on the bench. This is phenomenal!’.”

The timing of the Ecuador clash at Giants Stadium - the venue for one of the most famous moments in the history of Irish football - worked out perfectly for Lapira. It was an end-of-season tour so most players had no use for their designated tickets, allowing the Notre Dame hero to create a special cheering section amongst the Irish supporters.

“They told everyone to go and warm-up and we had been doing that for most of the game,” Lapira says.

“I was juggling the ball on the sideline in front of the Irish fans, and I had about 20 friends in the crowd, so I thought that was all amazing. I remembered they called down for a sub, and one of the lads ran over and then came back to where I was and told me that they were calling for me.

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23 May 2007; Joe Lapira, Republic of Ireland, in action against Jairo Campos, Ecuador. US Cup, Republic of Ireland v Ecuador, Giants Stadium, Meadowlands Sports Complex, New Jersey, USA. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

“I didn't know if my legs were even working right then. My friends chanted ‘Notre Dame’ from the Irish section when I came on. I couldn't tell you a single thing that happened in the game. I can't remember what happened. Next thing I knew it was after the game and I had a cap for Ireland.”

The team went out to celebrate that night in New Jersey but Lapira was confined to the team hotel – he wasn’t yet 21. However, when the squad moved on to Boston for the second game of the tour – which Lapira didn’t play in – the team showed him some Irish hospitality to mark his debut.

“In Boston, I told them I wasn't 21 and they were like 'Ah, we're the Irish national team. We're getting in wherever we go',” Lapira says.

“And we did. A big group of us went to a load of bars in Boston and had a blast. Then I had a flight home at 6am the following morning so it was a whirlwind week that ended with me being hungover on the way to the airport.”

That session was the crescendo of the most memorable week of his football career, but the luck Lapira had in winning a cap deserted him in the immediate aftermath. He had trials with Rangers and Derby County that summer but picked up injuries that denied him the chance to impress.

He returned to Notre Dame for his final year and was drafted by Toronto in the MLS thereafter but had no interest in playing in North America. Instead he decided to embark on a journey to Europe, which ended up with him playing in the Norwegian second division for Nybergsund IL-Trysil for two and a half seasons.

After enjoying some football, living in a log cabin and snowboarding, Lapira’s agent gave him a call, which set him off on another footballing adventure.

“My agent rang and said, 'Will you be a guinea pig for me? I know you like to travel and go places… what do you think about Vietnam?',” he remembers.

“The money was okay and I decided to try it out. Through that I ended up going to Singapore and then India. I got a contract in India and my second day I had my appendix removed.

“The two or three months I was there I was frail and dropped about 10kg. It made me appreciate basic stuff as a human being. I went a week without toilet paper at one point. To this day I'll keep a roll of toilet paper in my car when I travel.”

Lapira lives a normal life now, far removed from the heady heights of international football – but even putting articles aside, Irish interest in his story hasn’t finished yet.

About a year ago, the 30-year-old checked his voice messages to see an Irish number had tried to get in touch. Cathal O’Reilly, a fan from Dunshaughlin, Meath, had been trying to track Lapira down along with his friends.

“About five years ago, around 15 of us started The Joe Lapira FIFA Tournament, we play it twice a year,” O’Reilly says.

“Joe Lapira was a cult hero in our group because of his status as a one-cap Irish player who came in and came out and was gone into the smoke before you knew what had happened.

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Cathal O'Reilly and his friends with their Joe Lapira flag at Euro 2016

“We always looked up to him in that sense because it was our boyhood dreams to play for Ireland and he got to achieve it. We were amateur footballers with dreams of playing and that's what he did."

To find Lapira, O’Reilly and his friends set up a Twitter account, scoured the internet and got in touch with journalists to try and find him. Nothing worked until eventually they discovered a mobile number for a ‘Joseph Lapira’ on an American company website.

“I got a couple of calls from an Irish number that wasn't from my family,” Lapira says.

“I had two voicemails and it was one of the guys like, 'Hey Joe, I just wanted to tell you that we're all big fans and we have a FIFA Tournament, and a Twitter handle and a trophy. It's a real tournament! Anyway, here's the lads, and here's a song' and then they started singing 'There's only one Joe Lapira'. It was a really long voicemail and I didn't know what was happening. Then there was a second voicemail that was more like, 'We just wanted to say, we're not crazy, we aren't maniacs!'.”

Lapira and the group of Irish fans are now unlikely online pen pals, exchanging messages and photos every time The Joe Lapira trophy is up for grabs.

His long hair is now gone, but the image of Lapira taking part in his only Irish cap adorned a gigantic flag at Euro 2016. He doesn’t really know what to make of his popularity among a cohort of fans, but is delighted to look back and know that he exceeded his modest expectations for his football career, becoming a small footnote in the history of Irish football in the process.

“I knew I was never going to be a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi,” Lapira says.

“All I wanted to do was to go to college and play soccer, that's how wide my goal was.

“I almost died when I saw that flag. If I had been walking through France and saw my face plastered on a giant flag, I might have actually had a heart attack.

“I thought it was incredibly weird when I heard they had the tournament but when I heard why I did it, I thought it was really cool.”

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