Wednesday 26 June 2019

The World Cup is on - time to eat ribs and watch three games a day

Squad goals: physio Charlie O’Leary and Ray Houghton celebrate after Ireland beat England in the Euro 88 tournament
Squad goals: physio Charlie O’Leary and Ray Houghton celebrate after Ireland beat England in the Euro 88 tournament
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

I've never been one for remembering dates or anniversaries.

Yet when it comes to football, some dates are simply emblazoned on the brain, never to be forgotten.

That this week was the 30th anniversary of our first ever match in a major championship, when we took the footballing world by surprise in Euro 88, was certainly a moment which won't be forgotten by anyone who was around at the time.

Much has been written this week about that famous match against England, when Houghton put the ball in the English net and a nation came alive to the quixotic charms of international football - where hope is always around the corner, but disappointment always stares you in the face.

The fact that we weren't even expected to be there only added to the sheer, mindless rush of euphoria which greeted that tournament.

On a cold November night in 1987, the day before Scotland unexpectedly beat Bulgaria in a rain-sodden Sofia to secure our place in Germany, Ireland played Israel in Dalymount.

We won 5-0, David Kelly scored a hat trick, and the crowd was just shy of 5,000.

I was 15, it was one of the first matches I had gone to without my father and walking back into town after the match with a classmate - who had lied to his parents about going to the game because they were rugby people and believed that 'soccer' was only for hooligans - the talk briefly turned to the outside chance of Scotland doing us a favour the next night.

Any hope was quickly dismissed by the older fans around us and with good reason - we'd been on the end of so many bad breaks and malign refereeing decisions that most fans had simply decided that the gods of football liked screwing with the Irish.

Yet when previously Gary McKay scored for Scotland, in what was arguably the most important goal in Irish football's history, we were suddenly going to dine with the big boys.

It was a genuinely historic moment, even if some punters had to cajole their local pub to put on the game because it clashed with the news.

But for regular football people, it was magical - the band who played the Baggot Inn that night put 'Scotland plus one' on the guest list and we knew we were on the verge of something momentous.

Football had always been the main sport for working class Dubs, so it's a slight on Ireland's long-suffering supporters to say we only became interested in the game around 1988.

But it certainly brought a relatively niche, urban sport into the consciousness of wider society.

Let's put it this way, my classmate's father, who had threatened to ground him if he went to Dalymount Park in 1987, made a big song and dance about going to the World Cup in Italy in 1990.

Italia '90 is often credited with ushering in the Celtic Tiger era, but that's the danger of confusing correlation with causation.

What's not in doubt is that within two years of being barely able to believe our luck at beating England in Stuttgart, we were foaming with rage over losing to Italy in Rome - a pretty steep curve of rising expectations which reflected our growing confidence.

We won't take any part in the World Cup which kicked off on Thursday and while that obviously stings, some of the more sensible supporters can live with this one easier than if we had missed out on France two years ago.

There have already been cases of fans (one English and one French at the last count) being attacked by the locals.

Of course, every tournament brings its own potential problems - in South Africa it was crime, in Brazil it was crime and crumbling infrastructure in a country which had seen riots and protests in the preceding weeks.

Those events went off peacefully, and the hope is that, confounding expectations, Russia '18 will be remembered only for the football.

But the stench of corruption which pervades FIFA is writ large in this year's host nation, and with Putin pulling the usual strong-man tactic of convincing his citizens that the West is out to get them (not a completely paranoid theory, either, it should be noted) there is the sense that the usual warm welcomes might be replaced by scowls at best and violence at worst.

Between Russia and the even more incomprehensible decision to hold the next tournament in Qatar of all places, there's the unavoidable sense that the people who run the game are determined to turn the fans off.

But as much as any sentient being will have a problem with the location, football is football wherever it is played.

Over the next few weeks, all eyes will be on Spain to see how they cope with their own version of Saipan following the sacking of their manager a few days before their first match.

We have the usual prospect of watching the English team conspire in increasingly ludicrous ways to blow whatever slim chances they may have.

We get to see Messi, the greatest player of his generation, have one last tilt at securing his name in international folklore as well as just club immortality.

We'll have at least one plucky underdog come from nowhere and steal our hearts.

We won't have vuvuzelas.

Like many of my friends, I've taken next week off - a week to sit on the couch, eat ribs and watch three games a day..

Football may indeed be the opium of the masses, but none of us want to go cold turkey just yet....

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