So, Euro2012 wasn’t quite an Italia90!
Back in 1990 things just kept getting better as our national soccer team led the entire country on a magical journey all the way to the semi finals where if I am not mistaken we were finally beaten by Italy. It was a special time when you could almost feel ‘Ireland Inc’ (sorry – I hate that expression too) beginning to develop a self confidence and a realisation that we were as good as any other nation on earth.
Bear in mind that this football odyssey came just two short two years after Houghton put the ball in the England net in Stuttgart and five years after Live Aid. I know we didn’t play football at Live Aid, but it was another iconic event which led many of us who watched it, to realise that U2 were well on their way to becoming the biggest rock band in the world and that Bob Geldof was a force of nature to be reckoned with. I remember noticing Irish flags near the stage and the slow dawning realisation that perhaps we not only could breed great leaders and musicians but maybe Ireland was also cool. Italia90 confirmed all of these possibilities.
But added to this burgeoning confidence were the army of fans (Jack’s Army in 1990) who travelled to Italy to support the team. Sky News was a new 24hour news station in 1990 and I remember their reporters in Rome for the semi finals interviewing Irish fans who were there for ‘the craic’ and who couldn’t believe our good fortune in getting all the way to the quarter finals. Their delight and pure joy in the experience was palpable and catching and a revelation to the British reporters who were more used to football fans being hooligans. Back in 1990 we were proud of the team, of honourary Irishman Jack Charlton and of the brilliant supporters. It was all damn near perfect!
So here we are 22 years later (can you believe it is that long ago?) and the Irish soccer team are back at a big international tournament and again we are being managed by a foreigner… this time Italian Giovanni Trapattoni. The fans mobilised by air and by land and headed east to Poland, a country with whom we now have strong links after our Celtic Tiger economy attracted so many of their countrymen and women to our shores to work. Expectations were high. Alas, as we all know, things have not panned out the way we might have hoped. In football terms the whole thing has been a disaster.
In 1990 Ireland was on the brink of conceiving her Celtic Tiger and we were all feeling good about ourselves. Now, in 2012 we are very much a broken country, traumatised by the collapse of our economy and giving away of our sovereignty and many of us trying to come to terms with crippling personal debt. There is a horrible feeling that we have lost control of our lives and indeed to a large extent we have.
To a lesser country the dismal football performances would have added to this feeling of depression and self loathing. Our having the ignominious glory of being the first team out of the tournament could serve to reaffirm our belief that we are as capable of playing football as we are in managing our economy. To a lesser country at the very least this would have led to an army of supporters coming home down and depressed and thoroughly fed up. Like those of us who feel we have no control over our lives as we struggle through this quagmire of financial disaster, our supporters might rightly have felt that no matter how much they sang they couldn’t seem to influence things on the field.
But the one thing we always have control over (listen up now – this is important) is our attitude to disaster. We are the only ones who can decide how we face each day. We can do so depressed and fed up or we can make a concerted and deliberate effort to greet the day with a smile and a spirit of optimism. It’s not easy in the face of all the huge financial problems we have… but it can be done. And if there is one thing we should take from Euro 2012 it is just that. We Irish have been gifted a great sense of humour. We love a party. We invented the craic. Don’t underestimate how a precious these gifts are.
How many countries with far superior soccer teams to ours would love to have our supporters? Our army of madly dressed men and women, who had the longest journey to make to Poland, but arrived in their thousands – many in converted ice cream vans and ambulances and clapped out vehicles. They knew they were backing one of the weakest teams in the tournament but they were determined to bring good humour which they showcased beautifully with their witty banners and signs – one of which even make the cover of German newspaper Bild.
Before and after matches our supporters partied with those of the very teams who crashed any dreams we might have had of winning an odd game. And last night in the face of a humbling defeat they gave a ten minute rousing rendition of The Fields of Athenry. Put simply if Carlsberg did football supporters they would do Irish ones…
As that saying goes ‘life is not about waiting for the storm to pass but rather it is about learning to dance in the rain’. Our soccer supporters showed all of Europe how to dance in the rain. And they did so with grace and humour. I am so proud of them. They reminded me of just how bloody great it is to be Irish!