By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — More than 100,000 fans toasted Ireland’s World Cup soccer squad heroes on Tuesday night at a monster homecoming party and pop concert in Phoenix Park after their penalty-kick shootout loss Spain in the second round of the tournament last Sunday.
The team and officials had earlier received personal thanks from both President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern when they paid a short visit to Aras an Uachtarain.
“I want to welcome you home on behalf of everyone in Ireland and thank you for your great efforts and the great joy you gave everyone,” McAleese said at the briefs audience. “We are very proud of you and the Irish fans that followed your progress in Japan and South Korea.”
Ahern also welcomed the team and congratulated them. “It was an excellent performance. You have done us proud,” he told them.
Earlier the team had landed at Dublin Airport after a 12-hour flight in a specially chartered plane from Seoul that flew the Irish tricolor from the cabin as it taxied on the tarmac.
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For security reasons, only media greeted them before they were taken away by bus for a private meeting with their families after their four and a half week absence in the Far East.
Team manager Mick McCarthy said they were delighted to be back.
“I am still disappointed because we could have still been in the tournament,” he said. “But once it was over we just wanted to get back.
“It is lovely that people want to turn out and give us a celebration. France went back early and they went back to a bit of derision; in Russia there was trouble there, and its nice that our supporters want to welcome us back. It is lovely.”
McCarthy said he was pleased South Korea had beaten Italy. “I wish Japan had won as well because they have been wonderful hosts.”
Goal scorer Robbie Keane said, “We really appreciate the fans coming out to see us.”
Veteran striker Niall Quinn, who is retiring from international soccer, said the welcome home party was important for young players who had never experienced anything like it before.
“For the lads who haven’t witnessed it before, this will be a night that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Goalie Shay Given said the most memorable World Cup moment for him had been the last-minute goal against Germany by Robbie Keane that gave the team a draw.
“I thought we were out of the game and he got the strike so late,” he said. “It was a great moment for everybody.”
He said he had just missed saving the final penalty shootout goal from Spain. “I tried to lift my foot actually, but I think it hopped over my leg. That’s just the way it goes.”
Given said he was disappointed they had not got another score and not ended up 1-1 against Spain after regular and extra time. Ireland lost 3-2 in the dramatic penalty shootout in the second-round tie on Sunday.
“We felt we had done enough in the game to go through without the penalties,” he said. “When it comes down to penalties, it is a lottery. Whoever’s luck is in on the day will go through and it wasn’t us.”
A green army of fans had been gathering for the big homecoming party since early in the morning. Gardai said they were expecting up to 100,000.
Alan Hunter, general secretary of the Irish Supporters’ Association, said it was the “mother of all parties.”
“It is an incredible atmosphere,” he said. “I came at daybreak and there was already a lot of teenagers here getting ready. What a homecoming, fit for heroes.”
In a controversial decision, Gardai ruled out a “victory” cavalcade through the Dublin’s streets for safety reasons. The taoiseach and his ministers favored the center city but bowed to the public safety advice.
Prior to the team’s arrival, boy band Westlife led a pop tribute to the squad by performing at the free open air concert.
Other bands such as Bellefire, Six, Picture House and Apres Match were also joining comics in saluting the team.
Three giant video screens showed highlights of the team’s matches played in Japan and South Korea.
A fleet of 150 buses shuttled fans from the city center to the park. The government has provided some euro 500,000 for the celebrations.
Newspapers criticized the Garda decision not to allow a “victory” cavalcade for the squad aboard an open top bus through the capital.
Officers have voiced fears that huge numbers of fans lining the streets could lead to people being hurt.
The Irish Independent hit out over what it called a “nanny state” decision.
“It is considered bad form to douse other people’s parties. To douse one’s own party is beyond the pale,” said its editorial, headlined “Spoilsports pick the Park.”
Phoenix Park, which is bigger than the state of Monaco, was the venue for an open air Mass attended by over a million in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited and is regarded as a safe venue for big crowds.
After Ireland was defeated in Italia ’90, an estimated 250,000 euphoric fans lined the streets to cheer the team home in an open-top-bus cavalcade. The huge crowd led to fears that fans, particularly children, could have been crushed.
After the USA ’94 defeat, the second welcome home for Jack Charlton’s squad was switched to Phoenix Park. But only about 40,000 turned up and there were complaints those festivities didn’t match the carnival atmosphere at the center city party four years earlier.
A special team from the gardai, the sports and environment departments, the heritage service and the city council had been planning the welcome home since June 12 and all agreed that a center city venue would be too danger