12 June 2008

It was in the year of eighty-eight, in the lovely month of June

Oh dear. Another nostalgia-laced post accompanied by a YouTube clip. Not even a week in and we're resorting to this. Doesn't bode well, does it?

Well, screw it. I'm going to wallow and I don't care who sees me. Today is the twentieth anniversary of Ireland's first ever game in a major championship, in the 1988 European Championships. As if this weren't momentous enough, it was against them across the water ; and blow me down if we didn't go and win 1-0.

Actually, Euro '88 came around a bit too soon in my life for me to have any concrete memories of it (Italia '90, on the other hand, I remember as if it were yesterday). But somehow this doesn't lessen its impact on me. Watching the footage - Ray Houghton's goal (and the slapstick routine that created it), the Lineker misses and the batten-down-the-hatches drill that preserved the lead, the awe-struck celebrations - is a bit like being sat down to be told the story of your great-great-grandfather who, passing by the river one day, saw a drowning man and dived in and saved his life.

Okay, that's stretching it a bit. But my point is that the wave of pride that washes over me is as great as it would have been had I been there.

Ireland is a pretty good place to be these days, what with the economic miracle that somehow made its way to us a decade-and-a-bit ago. Twenty years ago, however, it was, frankly, shit. Defined by theocracy, terrorism and an economy that was barely functioning, the place was a misery. Anyone who could get out, did, which of course dug the country into an ever deeper rut.

So this was more than just a sports team winning a game. For one thing, here we were on an international stage, actually being good at something. We weren't the most talented team in the world, but we were competing with the elite, sometimes even winning, always at least giving
them a mighty fright. Maybe, even if only for one day, people would think of Ireland without simultaneously bringing to mind the IRA, or those thick Paddys immigrants in their neighbourhood.

As well as this, it served simply to make people happy. Perhaps oddly for a country where soccer isn't even the number one sport (though it's getting closer), whenever we've been involved in a major competition, the country has been consumed by it to the exclusion of almost everything
else. It's really quite amazing. When we play a game in a tournament, everyone forgoes whatever it is they'd normally be doing and watches. People with no knowledge of football, and no interest otherwise, become not only as engrossed as the hardcore fan but instant experts. And when we achieve something special, as luckily we have done in each tournament
we've been in, everyone come together and shares in the elation. There has
been no unifying force like it.

And this unity and joy were especially important in 1988. When the nation was slowly drifting away in a sea of despair, here was a taste of the purest of pure happiness, no strings attached.

Of course, a lot of the pride felt at such moments derives just from being a small country bucking the odds. By dint of our small population, it's not often that we're the best, or among the best, at any sport. Personally, I'm not all that patriotic, and I'm certainly not nationalistic, but when Pádraig Harrington wins a British Open or Sonia O'Sullivan a gold medal, it still generates that feeling of "that's one of us". I often wonder whether someone from one of those enormous
countries that hog the medal table at the Olympics can feel that with the same intensity; surely the regularity of success dulls the emotions.

Ireland went on to draw with the Soviet Union and lose to Holland by a late, lucky, lucky goal, and were eliminated. The team was welcomed as heroes by hundreds of thousands on their return. Two years later, we reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and the country nearly melted down.

It's been argued that these tournaments were the beginning of the Celtic Tiger, giving a shot of inspirational confidence to a demoralised people. It's a nice theory, if a tad far-fetched. Still, perhaps it says something that this idea can be proffered without being totally laughed out of

Reading back over this, perhaps I'm over-sentimentalising it, viewing it through football-tinted glasses, as someone who wasn't even conscious of it at the time; take that at a caveat if you will.

As a reward for reaching this far in the post, here's that YouTube clip I mentioned. I could have posted a highlights clip, but this is somehow more evocative; it's a rendition by Christy Moore of his song 'Joxer Goes To Stuttgart', depicting a trip to the Euros by a band of intrepid Irishmen.
Lord knows what anyone not Irish will make of it, but hey:


fredorrarci 12/6/08 3:32 PM  

Don't know what happened the formatting here - I'll see if I can figure out how to fix it.

fredorrarci 12/6/08 3:51 PM  

That's a bit better, it's at least readable now.

Steve 12/6/08 5:52 PM  

OK, Fredorrarci, I'll take the bait. As a citizen of one of those big, medal-hogging countries you referred to, I'll share my perspective. I think in many ways you're right that one more added to the count doesn't provide that much extra satisfaction. That's especially true in something we're expected to win. Olympic basketball used to be a case in point. Then, in 1972 in Munich, the unthinkable occurred: the Soviets beat us. It wasn't fair and square, but it was official. The truth of it is, it shouldn't have been close. Only after that did wins become meaningful. We even went so far as to construct a "Dream Team" of our best pros to make sure we didn't lose again.

One of our proudest Olympic moments was when we beat the stellar Red Army team in ice hockey back in 1980. Of course Cold War tensions were at a peak, but what really made it special, I think, was that we were such underdogs -- callow and unrecognized.

We also know that "one of us" feeling you talked about. It might happen when our college teams do well or our city's pro teams vie for honors. The Bears have those same kind of fans you mentioned before (the sudden die-hards and experts) whenever they're in the Super Bowl. I would use the Cubs and the World Series as an example, but they haven't been there since WWII. Plus, I don't want to tempt any English-speaking non-Americans to start in on the old John Cleese routine about why it's so arrogant to call it a World Series.

I personally take the most pride whenever skinny, middle-aged guys from the Midwest do well. We have small-group, happy-few affinities, too; we just define them differently.

fredorrarci 13/6/08 1:02 AM  

Excellently fielded, Steve. Of course it was a tad smug of me to suggest that all you big, bad superpowers did was rampage unemotionally through the world of sport, trampling us wee 'uns underfoot.

There's not really anything to add; as the Americans say (or at least as the Americans in basketball magazines say), I've been schooled.

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