herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

A magic moment or show of passion and win, lose, or draw, we'll be happy

Commentators have remarked on the differences between the Ireland of 1932, where the 31st Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin, with a million people crammed into the Phoenix Park, and today's Ireland where the 50th International Eucharistic Congress opened with a more modest attendance of approximately 10,000 on the same night as our faith in Irish football was severely tested against Croatia.

The two Congresses do however have one thing in common. For the duration of both of them, an entire nation fervently prayed for the special intentions of an elderly Italian gentleman -- even if the prayers had switched allegiance in the intervening eight decades from the 75-year-old Pope Pius XI to the 73-year-old Giovanni Trapattoni.

It may be an unfortunate omen for Trapattoni that while the previous Pope Pius, the X, was elevated to sainthood (like Trapattoni's predecessor, Jack Charlton) and the next Pope Pius, the XII, was declared Venerable, Pius XI -- who presided from afar over Ireland's first Eucharistic Congress -- is remembered only as plain Pius, despite a 17-year reign.

If Ireland exit Euro 2012 with two more results like last Sunday's, many will pray that Trapattoni's reign will be considerably shorter.

That's a pity, because these rare and precious games should forever be imprinted in the minds of new generations. I still remember the electric atmosphere standing on the terraces in Germany in 1988.

I remember my infant son crying in my late wife's arms in 1990, frightened because his father and uncle were kneeling before a television, screaming, "let anyone but O'Leary take the penalty". In that moment, I could never have imagined that the next time Ireland played in a major finals in Europe, the infant would be a grown man screaming at a television: the only Irishman in an Irish bar in Virginia, USA.

We now have so little to lose that it is time to throw caution to the wind.

A drive through Finglas or Cabra or Crumlin will tell you what it means to people, with streets decked in bunting. During one of Ireland's lowest ebbs, we desperately need a reason to feel proud.



Chance

When people think of young players in World Cup finals they recall Pele's impossibly young face, playing for Brazil in 1958 at 17.

It's ludicrous to talk of James McClean in the same breath as Pele, but Pele is actually the second youngest to play at a World Cup.

The youngest was Norman Whiteside, just 17 years and 41 days old when he played for Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup..

Whiteside proved he was not too young and inexperienced by being given the chance to prove it.

Ireland may not escape from what was always a near impossible group, but that doesn't mean that, with honest endeavour mixed with a flash of inspiration, this team may not still give us one great performance to remember, one superb goal that will send children out on to the streets, excitedly trying to recreate it.

A poet may spend a whole lifetime writing, but if they get lucky they are remembered for just one immortal poem or stanza. The rest falls away in the same way as nobody remembers Ireland's dreadful game against Egypt at Italia '90, our dreary nil-all draw against Norway in the USA, or the equally dull draw with Cameroon ten years ago.

Instead they remember moments of brilliance -- Whelan's gravity-defying leap in 1988, Houghton's roll of celebration at the Giants' Stadium, the courage of a young Robbie Keane scoring against Germany in Ibaraki, or the oriental bow of a baby-faced Damian Duff after netting against Saudi Arabia.

Last Sunday, Duff and Keane worked themselves into the ground. This Polish odyssey deserves to be remembered for more than just the end of some great international careers. It can still be remembered as the start of something else.

In Paris, with their backs to the wall, this Irish team lost over two legs but gave a nation a renewed sense of pride even amid disappointment and injustice. They threw caution (and, some say, their manager's instructions) to the wind and played with such passion that no barrier separated the team and the supporters on the terraces, each knowing they were part of something remarkable.

Even if it ends next Monday, let's hope they can still give us one great moment that will live on in the collective memory of today's children. Let streets and villages feel one huge surge of elation, a golden moment of collective joy, a shout heard from here to Virginia, and in every place where the Irish are gathered.

Maybe we used up all our good luck getting to Poland, but maybe we also used up all our bad luck last Sunday. Bring on Spain tonight and win, lose or draw, let us do so with passion and pride.

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