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David Kelly: The captivating tournament that changed the nation for the better

German adventure ensured beautiful game became celebrated in Ireland - rather than ridiculed

Ray Houghton puts the ball in the English net and cements his own place in the annals of Irish sporting history
Ray Houghton puts the ball in the English net and cements his own place in the annals of Irish sporting history
David Kelly

David Kelly

Euro 88 brought outsiders in from the cold and brought football to the outsiders.

The sport here has never been the same since. Neither has its country.

Before Jack Charlton's side left for Germany in May, only around 18,000 attended the final friendly match against Poland.

All were dedicated supporters of a sport which was neither popular nor profitable at the time.

After they returned less than a month later, more than 18,000 people thronged the capital city's streets to welcome home a squad that had captured millions of Irish hearts.

A fortnight earlier, O'Connell Street had been deserted as, it seemed, the entire populace retired indoors to watch Ireland take on England.

The Holy hour was still in existence. But on June 12, there was a new religion - a Sunday service of a different class altogether.

It was truly a transformative time and we have been reeling in the years ever since.

Bloodshed

In a black-and-white decade of unemployment and bloodshed and social rancour, sport and entertainment were rare escapes to exult in; even more special if indulged on an international scale.

And even more sacred if they included a bloody nose for the old enemy.

The Irishman's inferiority complex was a world away from its confident 21st-century persona; as much as the burgeoning global success of U2 made us feel good about ourselves, the appearance of Foster & Allen on 'Top of the Pops' was less than emboldening.

In an age before Ryanair and the world wide web, many of us preferred to wallow in the cosy parochialism of our choosing, whether that was GAA, country and western, The Blades, or the League of Ireland.

Insularity defined Ireland still and, whether through the ambivalence to terrorism or political corruption, it didn't always feel like one could wave a tricolour with pride in this country. Or any other country for that matter.

But Euro 88 changed the way Ireland felt about itself and how the rest of the world felt about us, too.

Perhaps it did so in an overly schmaltzy way - and often we craved it too needily - but no matter. It was something, at least.

Another irony of the time is that we also consumed so much commercially and culturally, from the UK or the US. Our chief export was emigration - except in the summer of '88 it would be a temporary exile.

The remarkable, credit-fuelled exodus of a thousand Joxers to Germany may have spawned an image of the drunken, happy Paddy but there are, perhaps, worse images with which to present the world. It hasn't done us much harm since.

In vast quantities, most German-bound supporters were consumed - and most German-bound supporters consumed in vast quantities - with a desire to perhaps offset the potential for embarrassment that many thought might ensue against the perceived giants of the world game.

Much of the pre-tournament commentary ran along these predictable lines.

In the event, they could have quite easily won the blasted thing. Soon there would be a day when no Irishman - or Irishwoman - would allow themselves to be quite so underestimated again.

Nobody saw it coming. No TV specials. No glossy pull-outs. No Apres Match (or Avant Match). The FAI didn't see it coming, either.

The big-hitting sponsors only really hitched themselves to the bandwagon in the aftermath and if you wanted merchandise, moseying down to the aul wans on Moore Street was a better bet than chaining your bike to the railings over in Merrion Square hoping to get some gear from the blazers at head office.

They didn't know their place in the world either. Soon, it would come to them.

The FAI - and those they governed for better or, mostly, for worse - had largely been unable to wield the influence of the State's three dominant pillars for generations.

Suddenly, Jack's Army became more popular than any political party, Jack himself a more saintly figure than any priest while the GAA, even after Heffo's own army had re-taken the city a decade earlier, found itself enduring another of its familiar existential crises.

Religion

Soccer was the new religion, the new creed, the new faith.

The whirl of emotions enjoyed collectively - in the streets, in bars, in back gardens, in bedrooms - were mirrored by the personal feelings of the outsiders who had suffered for their own devotion down the years.

The much-maligned League of Ireland men who had seen their game wither on the vine and the Junior Soccer men from Mayo and Tipp and Limerick whose passion was treated with disdain, and the schoolboy soccer men who ploughed the lonely furrow.

Children had been abused and beaten and ridiculed for playing soccer and many of the country's internationals, from Giles to Brady, could tell tales of how the "corner boys" were so brainwashed by the dismissal of "that foreign game" that when they left school they hardly knew what it was to be Irish at all.

That's if the threat of expulsion for playing soccer wasn't carried through.

If Official Ireland treated the game like the dirt on its shoe; the rest it swept under the carpet as 21st-century Ireland would end up - and still is - discovering.

Euro 88 threw open its doors and invited them all and while they were away, the people they left at home reconciled themselves with the past and the beginning of something that, as it turned out, wouldn't really end.

Ireland's soccer team - and its supporters - entered Euro 88 dismissed as outsiders. Nobody would ever be allowed to make the same mistake again.

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