We certainly hope that Ireland do get to the World Cup finals. Irish participation in the 1990, 1994 and 2002 tournaments were occasions of great joy at home and in immigrant communities abroad.
This first victory, however, left a certain bitter aftertaste. The Football Association of Ireland and manager Giovianni Trapattoni insisted on a neutral venue — the game was played in Mainz in western Germany — because of the recent war between Georgia and Russia. In the circumstances, this was nothing less than gamesmanship on the part of the Irish. The shooting stopped several weeks ago, following a European Union-negotiated peace agreement. There was no real risk attached to going to Tbilisi; certainly not any more than traveling to Israel at the best of times, yet somehow the Republic managed to play a game there during the last World Cup qualification campaign.
It’s worth recalling that Ireland itself was once the victim of over-hyped fears and threats. The Scotland and Wales rugby teams, for instance, refused to travel to Dublin to fulfill championship fixtures in 1972 because of the worsening situation in Northern Ireland. It was a cruel blow for fans in a season in which the coveted Grand Slam was tantalizingly within reach, as the Irish had beaten France and England in Paris and London.
In a sporting gesture, the latter team agreed to play a special game in the Irish capital, and the home fans — Catholic and Protestant, unionist and nationalist — got to see an international game that season. No foreign sportsmen before or since have gotten a rapturous welcome quite like the one the visiting English rugby players received that day.
Well, many expatriate Irish, Scottish, Welsh, English, American and Australasian football fans had long been looking forward to the Republic visiting Tbilisi last week. And let’s not forget the native-born locals who’ve also been through a tough time of late, living in terror of Russian aerial bombing over several days. More than 60,000 fans would have greeted the teams and the traveling Irish supporters at the National Stadium last Saturday.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the South Ossetia issue, the Irish might have displayed some solidarity with a nation that aspires to join the EU. Instead, a paltry 4,500 turned up in Mainz to see a solid “away” win that was just a little hollow at the same time.