The way my companions on the package tour put it—"The lads are playing a friendly"—makes the game seem like a trifle. I'll soon learn better. I'll soon learn that there's nothing trifling about any occasion on which Ireland's national soccer team takes the pitch for the Auld Sod.
To see the lads win, that's why we've flown to Amsterdam, checked into a hotel, gotten well lathered at the Irish pubs off Dam Square and boarded the bus out to Tilburg for the match. A victory over an international power like the Netherlands would be grand just now, only two months before manager Jack Charlton and the team go to the States for the World Cup. To my busmates it matters not a whit that only seven of the team's 22 players are Irish-born. That Charlton is an English Protestant matters even less; Jack guided the lads to the World Cup quarterfinals in Italy four years ago, and for that alone he could stand for president of Ireland and win.
The Irish are a people scattered about the globe, and there's no more appropriate way to honor that emigrant tradition than to assemble a raft of them and vouchsafe their fortunes to a manager who hasn't once lost to his fellow countrymen at this game that the British, smug eejits that they are, think they own. So we motor along, singing our songs and slagging our mates, the bus a rolling madhouse of flags and scarves and jackets, green and white and orange. On board we've had to ask Herr Heineken to do the work usually left to Messrs. Smithwick and Harp and Guinness, but he seems up to the task. We help ourselves to a few bevvies, a couple o' jars, some gargle, a bit o' hooch—like Eskimo words for snow, these are.
This tour has attracted two types of fans. There are those who can't afford the trip to the States, so an overnight to a "friendly" exhibition game has to do. The others, prosperous enough to follow the team wherever it goes, are old hands who say the revel level on this trip is woefully below par—a protestation I find hard to believe.
Counting himself among the first species is a fellow named Wally. Or so I gather; he will never be sober enough to explain fully one way or another. Several times I save Wally from incurring huge orthodontic bills when the bus makes sudden stops, which would have sent him tumbling teeth-first into the stairwell had I not been there to break his fall.
Among the second species are John and Jimmy, owners of Dublin grocery stores within a few blocks of each other. In Ireland, if you run rival shops, you don't plot ways to cut into each other's market share. You follow the lads together. John and Jimmy have been to all the garden spots during the Republic's 18-month campaign to qualify for this World Cup: Denmark, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia. In Riga all the hotels were booked, so some of John and Jimmy's traveling companions bunked down in a sanatorium. They impart this fact with no evident sense of irony.
Suddenly there's a guttural report from several rows to the front. With a lurch of his head a member of our party has deposited his day's libations in one of the plastic bags hung with forethought on each armrest.
Soon a chorus of "Stop the bus, we have to wee wee!" comes from the back, sung to the tune of the refrain "Glory, glory, hallelujah." The driver obliges our clamor for a place where the wrath of hops might be stored, and there follows a remarkable sight: a dozen of us, lined up by the side of the road, further lowering the lowlands in full view of a quarter mile's worth of Dutch drivers stuck in traffic.
Once we've reboarded the bus, mercy intervenes. The Tilburg stadium appears before we can favor one another with some as-yet-unperformed bodily function.
Stop the bus, we have to nee wee: Is this the battle hymn of the Republic of Ireland? Is this what the World Cup will deliver to the U.S. over the next month—this, multiplied by 23, the number of foreign countries sending followers?
America should be so lucky. For all the concern stateside about security and hooliganism, the Irish aren't looking for a rumble. They're coming to the States for the craic, which is pronounced crack and is a Gaelic catchall for fun and games. Ireland's supporters will be easy to spot. They'll have what they like to call "faces too small for our smiles." They'll be wearing the WIN OR LOSE WE'RE FOR THE BOOZE T-shirts. They'll be carrying squeeze boxes and violins and bodhrans (traditional drumlike instruments made from goatskin) and singing of Molly Malone and her cockles and mussels. And they'll be toting guidebooks, available from any Dublin newsagent, advising them not to take offense if Americans inquire about their dysfunctional royal family, not to call cigarettes fags and not to ask anyone, "Where can we find some good crate?"
Based on visa requests, about 12,000 Irish are expected to make the trip to New York and Orlando, where Ireland will be billeted for its three first-stage games. The only factor limiting the exodus will be the availability of tickets. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) received an allotment of 3,200 for each game, and Irish tour operators got another 4,000. That means nearly 5,000 Emerald Islers will come to the States without ducats. Many will settle for the $30-a-butt stools with good TV sight-lines said to be for rent in some of New York's Irish bars.
"We could do with 100,000 tickets because of the people outside Ireland," says Joe Delaney, chief security officer of the FAI. Indeed, untold more fans will be arriving from the Irish diaspora—from England and the European continent and from Australia, where more than one third of the population is of Irish descent. In the Big Apple they'll mingle with the 750,000 New Yorkers who claim Irish ancestry. In the Big Orange, as Irish soccer fans are calling Orlando, the SPF-30 will flow as freely as the malt beverages, and the Irish government is setting up temporary consular offices. If the lads advance to the second stage, the fans could wind up in Boston for a few days, which would turn that city into Dublin-on-the-Charles.
It will cost anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 to cover one fan's flights, hotel rooms and tickets. Food and ever important drink may cost a few thousand more. To help the workaday Joe Soaps get to the States, Irish credit unions are offering loans with competitive interest rates, and companies have set up World Cup savings programs that set aside a chunk of an employee's paycheck.
At the World Cup in Italy four years ago, even the most steeped-in-the-faith didn't dare imagine Ireland advancing beyond the opening stage. So when the lads beat Romania on penalty kicks to extend their stay another week, thousands of Irish fans found themselves at once financially unable to stay and constitutionally unable to leave. They phoned home, imploring the missus to sell the car, pawn the furniture, mortgage the house. Relatives sent money by wire, and tins of soup and sandwiches by mail. Employees told employers, cheerfully, to eff off. Suddenly all the woes afflicting Ireland—an economy only a few decades removed from Third World status, with persistent joblessness and pockets of rank poverty—got turned on their heads. "Emigration became a holiday, the wandering Irishman a delirious traveling show," wrote Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times. "Unemployment became a blessing allowing those without jobs to head off to foreign parts for an indefinite stay. The national debt became a great feckless joke, as borrowing for current purposes (i.e. staying in Italy) became a patriotic duty."
"There's guys," Jimmy tells me, "still paying for it."
But the craic was worth every quid, even if the Republic never actually won a game. In The Van, Roddy Doyle's novel set against a backdrop of those intoxicating three weeks, a character moons over Ireland's first-stage accomplishments: "We beat England one-all, we lost to Egypt nil-all, an' we drew with the Dutch. That's not bad, is it?"
Not at all—especially the "beating" England part. You'll never hear an Irish fan call the English good for nothing. They're good for at least one thing: counterexample. In 1987, before the Irish fans' reputation for benign behavior was yet established, they followed their team to Luxembourg for a European Championships qualifier and were astonished to find the local police supplemented by a Belgian riot squad. It turned out that when England had played in Luxembourg the year before, the English fans had rather misbehaved. Within a few hours, after everyone realized how docile the Irish were, the rent-a-cops could be seen sitting on their helmets, munching on wurst.
A few behind-the-curve folks have been slow to get the word about Ireland's fans. Kevin Beary, the Orange Count) sheriff in charge of security at the Orlando venue, touched off indignation in Erin back in December when he said something about the Irish coming with "a little baggage." Big Orange mayor Glenda Hood knew better, and when she visited Dublin in March, she was sure to make nice. "I don't think there's ever been a fight with the Irish," John now tells me. "The main reason is we're trying to prove that the English are stupid. In England we used to get picked up in pubs by paddy wagons. Now we're the gentlemen! We're proving to people it's bred into us how to drink."
The FAI, working closely with the Republic of Ireland Soccer Supporters Club, makes sure the fans cherish their reputation. Unofficial stewards in each crowd of Irish fans abroad have a stern word with anyone who's getting out of order. In return, if a fan loses a passport or tickets, the FAI steps in to help out—"Kind of a consumer service, if you will," says the FAI's Delaney, who helped install this monitoring system.
In a book about the most bestial of English soccer fans, Among the Thugs, author Bill Buford details how a hooligan once sucked out someone's eyeball. That book's Hibernian counterpart is What's the Story? True Confessions of the Republic of Ireland Soccer Supporters, and it is to Among the Thugs what Mother Goose is to Brett Easton Ellis. What's the Story? tells the tale of the parolee who returned to a Dublin prison so as not to miss the televised matches during the 1990 World Cup; of the wounded IRA member who cheered from a hospital ward with the Special Branch men who had shot him; and of the mourners at a funeral who, upon learning of the decisive penalty kick against Romania, burst into a dance of joy even as the dearly departed was being carried from the church. "I heard you guys had some good funerals," said an American witnessing the last scene. "But I never thought they were this good."
Having hosted the Irish, Italy will never be the same. In one town a group of Irish fans, imbibing a little midday gargle, watched through a tavern window as a couple of bricklayers took a lunch break; by the time the workers returned, the wall they were working on had been finished by three Irish brickies who wanted to make a nice gesture. An Italian priest suffering from throat cancer that had left him unable to say Mass for two years, suddenly belted out a song when cajoled to do so by some Irish fans, touching off cries of "Miracolo! Miracolo!" from his fellow parishioners. When a shipload of Irish supporters arrived in Sicily, only to be penned up in a holding area to await processing, they decided that if they were going to be treated like sheep, they would behave like them. "Baaaaaaa!" bleated the fans until the carabinieri, won over, set them free. "Tourism in Ireland by Italians has skyrocketed since the last World Cup, and everyone knows why," says Kevin Moran, a fullback on the Irish team. 'it's all due to the goodwill of the supporters. We're as proud of them off the pitch as they're proud of us on it."
Through the three weeks of the Republic's run in the '90 World Cup, there wasn't a single criminal arrest of an Irish fan, and the Irish supporters were voted the event's best. "Everybody enjoys a song, enjoys the craic," says Charlton. "We've always told [our fans] they're the best in the world. If you say to people, 'You're a bunch of idiots,' they'll behave like idiots. If you say, 'You're very good,' they'll behave better."
If there's an Irish superfan, a sort of Rocken (Rollen) Stewart only with more charm and without the rainbow wig and the arrest record, it's a Dubliner named Davy Keogh. Ireland rarely plays a match without a huge tricolor hanging somewhere in the stadium bearing a stitched message that reads DAVY KEOGH SAYS HELLO. Since the 1988 European Championships in Germany, Keogh has regularly taken off from his job as a receiver at a cigarette factory and gotten to the stadium hours before the game to commandeer the prime flag-hanging space up in "the slopes," so the TV cameras can catch his salutation.
Davy and a lass named Esther Walsh were engaged eight years ago, but they kept putting off the wedding because there was always some match requiring Davy's attendance that left him broke. "I told her to put it on the long finger," says Keogh. "That someday it would happen." Thanks to Ireland's failure to qualify for the 1992 Europeans, it did. When Davy and Esther were married last July, the priest led the congregation in the Wave.
Michael, our tour director, will be taking several hundred fans to the States, and he's worried about a rumor he has heard: that there's some New York City ordinance prohibiting singing in bars. I assure him this can't be true, and I soon realize why Michael is so concerned. Matches involving the Republic shouldn't just be televised, they should also be Dolbyized. Beginning more than an hour before kickoff, we sing. In honor of the goalkeeper who keeps rosary beads in his gym bag behind the net, we sing to the tune of Guantanamera: "One Packie Bonner/ There's only one Packie Bonner...." To goose the BBC commentator who likes to disparage the Irish style, we adapt a Welsh rugby song: "Are ya watchin', are ya watchin', are ya watchin', Jimmy Hill?" To cheer the lads on, we sing to Those Were the Days, "Come on, you boys in green."
The team runs on music the way a car runs on petrol. Back in the mid-'80s, when only a few hundred Irish fans would travel to an away match, Charlton permitted his players to mingle with the supporters and even encouraged them to share a glass and a singsong. But with Ireland's success, its road following has swollen into the thousands, and Charlton can no longer permit such interaction. Music nonetheless is so important to the lads' spiritual well-being that Charlton blames a song for the 1-0 loss to Italy that ended the World Cup journey of four years ago. On the team bus during the ride over to the stadium, equipment manager Charlie O'Leary mistakenly played a tape of a dirge called Willie McBride instead of the customary Sean South of Garryowen, an upbeat Republican tune.
When you're singing all the time, it's hard to be hostile, so the barbed-wire fencing in Tilburg that keeps us from the Dutch, and the Dutch from us, is a needless safeguard. A policeman who spots one of us drinking beer from a bottle waits until our man has finished and then confiscates the bottle with a smile.
I see the centering pass, but I scarcely see the goal, because the four fans in front of me are up on their feet, singing and waving the flag. I know for certain that Ireland has scored only when John fixes me with a hug. He explains to me how the scorer, Tommy Coyne, recently returned to the team after his wife's sudden death. Moments later our section is in full throat again, singing a song from Monty Python's Life of Brian called (Always Look on) The Bright Side of Life.
Although there's evidence that centuries ago the Celts kicked around animal bladders stuffed with hay, soccer has anything but a Gaelic pedigree. Like oversexed royals and Mott the Hoople, the game is an English gift to the world. The Brits refined and popularized "association football," and the empire's sailors, merchants and missionaries took it to the corners of the earth.
Over the years the Irish met up with an additional, unwelcome propagator of the game: the occupying British soldier, who, to Irish Catholics, has represented subjugation by England and English culture going back to the 17th century. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), founded in 1884 to further games of Celtic origin (principally hurling and Gaelic football), pledged itself to make indigenous sport as much a part of the Irish nationalist movement as music and language. But the GAA went further. It instituted "the Ban," which barred from Gaelic games anyone who played or even attended "games of the British garrison" such as soccer, rugby and cricket.
And so soccer languished in the Republic for more than 80 years. The national team suffered through a string of mediocre managers and bad luck. Only about 25 years ago did attitudes begin to shift. The Republic failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but by then more and more Irish could afford TV sets, and with the altitude of Mexico City livening up the ball, a jubilee of goals made for beguiling soccer on the home screen. One year later a Dublin newspaper published on its front page a picture of Mick O'Connell, perhaps the greatest Gaelic football player of all time, watching a soccer game. O'Connell retired before the GAA could launch an investigation. But the GAA, facing reality, abolished the Ban within a year.
In 1986, before Charlton took over the team, 50,000 people played soccer in the Republic. By '91, 140,000 played, and by the end of last year 161,000 had been conscripted into the game. These numbers soared even as Ireland's population declined. Soccer carries no stigma anymore. Two members of the World Cup team—Moran and Bonner—are converted Gaelic footballers, as is Niall Quinn, the team's best striker, who will miss the Cup because of a knee injury. In the Gaelic stronghold of Galway, there are plans to open an international soccer museum. And in the North even those shock troops of Republicanism, the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA—the Provos and the Sticks—play soccer against each other.
Still, in some quarters the Ban mentality persists. Just this year the GAA expelled a Gaelic club in County Wicklow that had permitted a local six-a-side soccer team to use its facilities. In another incident in Wicklow, the GAA withheld its support from a community center until a modest soccer program—a once-a-week, one-hour class for kids under 10—was eliminated. Jack's lads must still play their home games at Lansdowne Road, a 42,000-seat stadium, instead of the 85,000-seat Gaelic ground, Croke Park. Even though such foreign games as Australian Rules football have been played in Croke Park, a soccer ball has never rolled across its sacred turf. The day one does, Irish Press columnist Eoghan Corry has written, "the national anthem will be drowned out by the joyous oinking of pigs overhead."
The GAA may once have been an arbiter of Irishness, but now there's a soccer strain in Irish culture. In Doyle's The Van, a couple of laid-off Dubliners discover prosperity and truths about their friendship by selling fish-and-chips to World Cup fans as they pour out of the pubs. In his ballad Joxer Went to Stuttgart, folksinger Christy Moore recounts the beginnings of Ireland's soccer mania, when the lads reached the finals of the 1988 Europeans. In The Tramway End, a play by Dermot Bolger, the narrator is an Irish èmigrè who describes the national team as "the only country I still owned, those 11 figures in green shirts, that menagerie of accents pleading with God."
Indeed, you could, trace how the Irish fanned out across the British Isles by listening to the babble in the Republic's locker room. Mick McCarthy speaks with a Yorkshire accent, Chris Morris with Cornish inflections and Andy Townsend in broad Cockney. Kevin Sheedy nearly chose to play for his mother's country, Wales, instead of his father's. Northern Ireland simply didn't want Alan Kernaghan, who grew up outside Belfast; Scotland took a pass on Ray Houghton, a 5'6" Glaswegian. Three of the Irish team's regulars—Phil Babb, Paul McGrath and Terry Phelan—are part African. And John Aldridge, a third-generation Liverpudlian, qualifies for the team in the most tenuous way possible, via a great-grandmother. Hence the joke that FAI really stands for "Find Another Irishman!" When members of the Irish delegation were in Lithuania for that World Cup qualifier, they noticed a story in a Vilnius daily, under the headline POPE is LITHUANIAN, pointing out that John Paul II's great-grandmother was born in Polish-occupied Lithuania. "We probably encountered Lithuania at the right time," wrote a wag in the Irish Independent. "Before they learned all the tricks."
Charlton admits that he built his team as a clerk would, studying birth certificates and bloodlines. But he won't apologize for it. The Irish professional league is not topflight, and there are fewer Irish in Ireland than in England, where most of the best Irish footballers play for club teams. "In a country of three million people, to say that I could pick a team from the national league and beat the best in the world is nonsense," says Charlton, who reminds people that St. Patrick was born in Britain.
That hasn't stopped others from pointing out that few of Ireland's players can sing the national anthem, which is in Gaelic. Before Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland in Belfast last November, in an atmosphere already poisoned by a wave of sectarian killings, Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham further inflamed matters by calling Charlton's team "mercenaries." Nonetheless, hyphenated Irish everywhere cultivate an affection for their ancestral homeland. At the 1990 World Cup, during the playing of the Irish anthem, the team scandalized the blazer-bound VIPs by facing the tricolor, not the dignitaries' box as World Cup protocol requires.
Charlton, who along with John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa is one of 63 people to have been given Dublin's Freedom of the City award, tells of an FAI development coach. Maurice Price: "Maurice once said to me, 'I was 16 when I left Ireland. I couldn't get a job there. I was forced to live in Coventry. I had to live in Coventry. I met an English girl, and I married her. Does that mean my kids aren't Irish? Does that mean I'm not Irish? I've always been Irish.' And he's quite right."
To listen to Charlton, a Geordie from the northeast of England, near Newcastle, is to understand how he has developed such kinship with the Irish people. "I'm from a very austere background," he says. "Not poor, but half and half. My father was a miner. And I've never grown away from the public. They like Jack Charlton, so Jack Charlton likes them. The moment they don't like me, I'll leave."
Charlton's passionate temperament and plainspoken manner run counter to the English traits of reserve, understatement and euphemism. The style his team plays matches that bluntness: The Irish pass the ball less often than most teams, preferring to send it long with a mighty boot and run it down. It's not very fetching soccer, but it keeps the ball where the Irish want it and Jack's lads in gear. "People say we show an enthusiasm that the English don't show," says Charlton, who played center half for England's 1966 World Cup champions. "Maybe it's because we know what we're doing."
Not 25 years ago an Irishman had to forswear soccer to prove his Irishness. Now, as the country takes its place in the European Community, the game is a screen on which Irish everywhere can project their nomadic sense of nationhood. After all, you can't beat Holland in hurling or Germany in Gaelic. (On May 29 Jack's lads did beat Germany 2-0 in Hanover, the first time the defending World Cup champs had lost at home in six years.)
"The Ban would still be there if it were up to the GAA," John tells me as he recounts how as a child in County Donegal, he got caught playing soccer in a schoolyard. As John watched, the schoolmaster took a knife and slashed the ball to bits.
But John believes that the lads and their fans have as much of a point to make today as the GAA did in another, more oppressive time. "The exploits we make and the happiness we display wherever we go, in a way it is political," he says. "It allows people in England, especially, to see we're not all murderers."
Our bus is supposed to leave for Schiphol Airport at 5:15 sharp the afternoon following Ireland's 1-0 victory over the Netherlands. But it's 5:30, 5:45, now 6, and five people haven't shown up yet. Michael asks the driver to swing by O'Reilly's Irish Pub on the chance that the MIAs are holed up there. Four indeed are, but Michael can't prevail on them to come out.
We hurry off to the airport without them, only to come to a dead stop at a drawbridge spanning one of Amsterdam's canals. Now we're sure to miss our flight. Worse, the bus is facing due west, and the late-afternoon sun is flooding through the windshield, rendering unviewable the video monitor at the front of the bus, which is playing a tape of last night's game. I'll miss again the goal I missed last night.
And then the most wonderful thing happens. The drawbridge hefts up and up, like a huge iron visor, its underbelly painted a deep and felicitous green. Suddenly the video screen comes sharply into view. As a conga line of boats and barges floats by, I get to see Coyne slide into the centered pass and knock the ball past the Dutch goalkeeper.
There's no spontaneous cheer. We've all been too recently knackered, jarred, buckled, shattered, gob-smacked (more Eskimo words). But to have had another chance to see the goal, this is the luck o' the people I've spent the last two days with, the result of all sorts of apparent calamities falling happily into place: the bollixes running off to O'Reilly's Pub; Michael's compassionate Gaelic heart deciding to wait an hour for them; Amsterdam's waterborne rush-hour traffic crossing our path just so. We'll simply miss the last flight back to Dublin, that's all.
But why should it matter? As the drawbridge lowers itself and we make our way west, the direction in which America lies, we hear our own voices from the video monitor—barely a thousand fans among last night's crowd, but unmistakably us.
We're reminding ourselves: Always look on the bright side of life.