Friday, March 03, 2006

sprechen sie fußball?

14 weeks to the start of the World Cup Finals 2006 in Germany, and I feel duty bound to spread the word about the planet’s most popular sport’s biggest festival, so I will post every Friday until after the tournament is over.

This week I relive the amazing times that were to be had here in Dublin the summer of 1990.


HOW OLÉ BECAME AN IRISH WORD

At the precise moment this pic was shot, Irish men, women and children all over the world were holding their breath.


Anyone who was alive and not wearing diapers in the Republic of Ireland for the summer of 1990 should have a World Cup story to tell. The funny thing is, a lot of them, myself included, may have trouble remembering who actually won the tournament itself!


At the time I was breezing my way through college learning much more from my job behind the bar at Gleeson’s of Booterstown than I was cracking Psychology books at UCD.

Although the pub in question had much closer ties to the game of rugby, the World Cup of 1990 which was staged in sunny Italy was to be the first to embrace the now customary global tradition of viewing major sporting encounters in a drinking emporium.

I clearly remember both John and Ciaran Gleeson pleading with their father Frank to invest in the big screen technology the minute it was confirmed that The Republic of Ireland soccer team had qualified to take part in the tournament. Oh what a worthwhile investment that turned out to be.

Allow me to demonstrate by way of a brief anecdote just how popular the local pub was as a vantage point. For Ireland’s third group game against the Netherlands, we put signs up everywhere we could, advertising that our Willow lounge was the place to be to get the best atmosphere. The fliers clearly stated that the doors to the lounge would open at 6pm sharp, so punters were advised to arrive early to avoid disappointment.

I was the lucky member of staff who was elected to man the door as the line began forming just after 5:30. People stood in eager anticipation and traded pleasantries with me as they waited and I gave them advice as to where the best seats would be once I opened the doors.

Unbeknownst to me, a hoard of regular patrons had already petitioned the four-strong management team for special treatment, and they were allowed into the Willow lounge via the kitchen. This meant that when I was allowed to swing the doors open on the dot of six, the lounge was already full to capacity! The second I realised this I was able to escape the bemused throng at the door and take my dinner break!

In actual fact, being a pub of multiple lounges, it was clear after the first group game against the aul enemy England that one big screen was nowhere near enough to satisfy the congregation. Smaller tellies were commissioned so that everyone with a pint in their hand could savour the action. Even we the barman were allowed a set on the counter so we would not miss out.

So where did this soccer frenzy come from?

When Ireland had failed yet again to qualify for the Mexico ’86 finals, and their little cousins up in the North managed it for the second time in succession, the governing body south of the border, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), made its most intelligent and yet most courageous ever executive decision.

Realising that success breeds success, they chose to appoint Jack Charlton as national team coach. The intelligence came from the fact that Jack himself had won the World Cup in 1966 as a player. The courage came from the fact that he was not only foreign, he was English.

Finally we had a pair of eyes to look at the setup from the outside. Jack’s biggest contribution was to scrutinize the FIFA regulations regarding eligibility to play for a particular country. He noticed that so long as you could prove that at least one grandparent was naturally Irish, you could don the green jersey.

Since our Great Famine had sent people far and wide around the globe, most notably across the water to England, Charlton realised his pool of players was much wider than it first appeared. He could then pull his many strings in the English game to convince top quality players who, though not quite good enough to play for their country of birth, may still have a chance to experience international football.

And so to join our native stars such as Liam Brady, Pat “Packie” Bonner and Ronnie Whelan, we now had the likes of Tony Galvin, Chris Hughton (both from my team Spurs) and Ray Houghton to call on. Jack Charlton instilled in his new charges a confidence and a style of play which involved making up for technical shortcomings against superior opposition by harrying them like Irish wolfhounds whenever they had the ball.

This new “put ‘em under pressure” style of play brought instant success and in 1987, Ireland qualified for its first major finals tournament, the European Championships in Germany. Since I believe I have some Scottish readers, I should point out that their 1-0 in Bulgaria greatly helped our cause that year! Thanks lads! Unfortunately the luck of the Irish was not to carry over to the tournament itself, for despite bravely conquering England 1-0 and holding the USSR to a 1-1 draw, we bowed out of the tournament courtesy of the Dutch.

Nonetheless, the German experience created a whole new generation of soccer fans in the country, one that was rabidly hungry for more success when Italia 90 came along.

It seemed inevitable that we would be drawn to play England yet again in the first round, with the Dutch and the so-called outsiders Egypt making up the group. And so the nation gathered to take in the excitement of our first taste of World Cup finals action.

We thought it had all gone pear-shaped when Gary Lineker put England 1-0 up in our opening encounter. I will always remember how our equaliser transpired. Goalkeeper Bonner had the ball in his hands and as he kicked the ball out towards the forward line his face showed a determination best demonstrated by the Irish turn of phrase “go on, ye boy ye!”

A matter of seconds later, Kevin Sheedy was slotting the ball into the net down the other end. Well you would have thought we had just been crowned World champions. It’s amazing how a 1-1 tie seems completely different to the two teams and their fans depending on who scored first!

The Egypt game that followed was quite possibly the most frustrating 90 minutes of football I have ever watched. Unfortunately the Irish tactic of stifling more skilful opponents was no good as the canny Africans gave us a taste of our own medicine and forced a 0-0 tie. This meant we were forced to get some kind of result against the Dutch to make the knockout stages.

Once again we went 1-0 behind, only to equalise by virtue of the lanky Niall Quinn, as his girlfriend Gillian watched in that very same Willow lounge in Gleeson’s, I might add. I knew this because I thought I was flirting with her until I was advised that she was somewhat spoken for!

Luckily for the Irish, even though our three first round matches resulted in draws, it was still good enough to get us into the knockout “last 16” phase, when we were to face Romania.

By the day of the game in Genoa, the entire nation was well used to the new temporary Irish national anthem:

We’re all part of Jackie’s army
We’re all off to Italy
And we’ll really shake them up
When we win the World Cup
Cos Ireland are the greatest football team!
Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé
Olé, Olé [repeat Olé’s ad nauseum]


Come to think of it, I'm not quite sure exactly how a Spanish word became synonymous with the Irish team's involvement in a competition in Italy, so maybe my title is a bit misleading. The point is, we would take any excuse to sing it, unless, of course, there was a post-game interview with the mighty Jack himself, when you could hear a pin drop in any pub!

Well, I doubt anyone remembers anything from the Romania match, at least the 120 minutes of play and the first lot of penalty kicks. Only when Lupescu took his team’s fifth kick and it was bravely saved by Bonner did the memory banks kick into gear. This meant Dave O’Leary needed to slot home his effort to earn us an astonishing quarterfinal berth.

Unbelievably, as he placed the ball on the penalty spot, a kid aged around 13 caught my eye at the bar and actually asked me if I could get him a Coke. Whatever my exact reply, I hope it was polite, but I can guarantee the gist was “no, go away”. I wouldn’t have been able to get it anyway, for when O’Leary’s kick smashed against the back of the net, there were more drinks spilled than poured!

The rest of that day for bartenders like me involved hard work yet for the rest of the nation it meant drinking out in the streets waving at every car passing by, whose drivers of course were honking their horns furiously in celebration. It was an amazing atmosphere. Every man, woman and child was smiling. Even those who would treat such sporting exploits with disdain couldn’t help but join in the fun.

After that dramatic day in Genoa, Jackie’s army could do no wrong in our eyes. Faced with a quarterfinal with the host nation Italy, I think we all knew there was a good chance our run was over, and sure enough, we succumbed to a goal from another unsung hero, “Toto” Schillaci.

The Irish team came home a few days later to a welcome the country had not seen since the Pope himself had visited 11 years earlier. By taking their place among the top eight nations in the football world, these men had written themselves into Irish cultural history, and their legacy touched every player that dons the green jersey today.

As for me personally, I made a solemn vow that whatever happened I would be the fun side of the bar the next time Ireland qualified for a World Cup finals.

What about the rest of the tournament?

Well, Paul Gascoigne cried and West Germany beat Argentina in the final by virtue of a controversial penalty. That was about it really, and I actually had to look up that latter bit of information to be sure.


Next week – USA ’94 : MAKING SOCCER HISTORY?

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