Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy Twentieth Anniversary, FAI!

Head's up: This post has absolutely nothing to do with anything health related. I am taking a stroll down memory lane and I invite you to join me if you want. Also, it's really just a stream of consciousness. You have been warned!
Twenty years ago, my life, and the life of Irish people the world over, changed forever. Today, twenty years ago, was the day that Ireland beat Romania 5-4 in penalty kicks in Italia '90. It was the day that all of Ireland stopped, waited with baited breath, and roared in unison at the end. I may have been 8 time zones away, but you better believe I roared too.

Italia '90 is the first World Cup I really remember watching. I have vague memories of a World Cup party prior to that, but I couldn't tell you who was playing or what the score was. Italia '90 was so burned in my memory partly because I was 10 and finally able to actually follow sports and partly because it was Ireland's first time at the World Cup. As I have mentioned before, my dad is an Irish immigrant. As much as I love Canada, when it comes to soccer (and rugby), Ireland is my team. Italia '90 made sure of that.

The years leading up to Ireland finally appearing in the World Cup were filled with highs (beating England in Euro '88... another game I remember with fond memories) and lows (the squabbles in the media between Eamon Dunphy, former player and Jackie Charlton, coach) but all that was forgotten when Ireland made it past the Round Robin stage. They were slated to play against Romania, at that time a dominant force in the soccer world (not so much now) and the general agreement was that 'the boys in green' had had a good run but it would be coming to an end. Still, it didn't stop everyone I know with the smallest sliver of Irish blood in them from crowding around their TV set in the hope that a miracle would happen.

My dad had invited a few friends around to watch and to follow it up with a BBQ. I can't remember exactly who was there, but I do remember there weren't enough seats and so I spent the entire game trying to get comfortable on the floor. It was a tense game, Romania attacking aggressively and Ireland building a defensive wall which rivaled the Berlin wall. Despite Romania's best efforts, not a single shot made it into the net and the teams were forced into extra time. You could see the frustration in the faces of the Romanian players. As much as I love Ireland, I remember Romania being the better team that day and deserving to win, but 'better team' doesn't always mean much when it comes to the final score. After extra time did nothing to change the result, a penalty shoot-out was inevitable.

I have never in my life heard my dad so quiet. Ever. Even when he sleeps he snores loud enough to wake the whole house, but he was silent during those penalty kicks. Romania was up first and they netted an easy one. Then Ireland, then Romania. Back and forth it went for the first four goals. The players would walk from the centre circle were they had to stay between kicks, place the ball where they wanted, and then score. Each time, the stadium erupted with cheers from that team's section. The score stood at 4-4 as Packie Bonner, Ireland's goalie, took his place on the goal line. He dropped his head and said a prayer (I know because he crossed himself when he was done) as Daniel Timofte strode up to the ball and got ready.

The problem with penalty kicks is that the goalie can not move until the player has made contact with the ball. In all honesty, a goalie will have already chosen which side they're going to dive to before the player has even touched the ball. You have a 50-50 chance of being right, and if you wait until the player has touched the ball, you have a 100% chance of being too late to stop the ball. Odds are better if you guess at a side and just go with it. Well, Packie guessed right on that last ball and he stopped it. My dad let out a loud yelp of joy as he jumped out of his seat. I remember being on my knees, not fully believing what I was seeing. I was waiting for the referee to call back the penalty shot for some unknown reason, to give Daniel Timofte another crack at it. Thankfully, my imagined doom was just that, imagined.

As David O'Leary walked up the field towards the goal, I got to my feet never once taking my eyes off the screen. This was it. This was our moment. Ireland would either do this, or we would all die of heart attacks before this game was over. I remember that O'Leary seemed to take forever to get the ball just right. I hated him for it in that moment, for prolonging my agony, but later I would think him the wisest man to have ever taken a penalty kicked. He ran on the ball and kicked it straight into the back of the net. A cheer erupted from our living room, and in the moment of celebration, my dad took his full glass of red wine and threw it at our freshly-painted white wall. There was jumping, screaming, hugging, singing, dancing, yelling, laughing, and a couple of toasts. Ireland had done the impossible. They were going to the quarter-finals.

We had barely caught our collective breath when our phone began to ring. Lorcan, Hugh, Mary, Eileen, Kevin, every single one of my dad's four brothers and five sisters (one aunt had passed away, my dad is one out of 11) phoned us that day. I remember yelling into the phone a lot and singing along with voices an entire continent and ocean away from me. I longed to be with them, to jump, scream, hug, sing, dance, yell, and laugh with them. I don't think I have ever missed my Irish family or longed so much to be in Ireland as I did that day. When we all settled down hours later, my voice was gone. I like to think that I gave it to Ireland that day.

June 25, 1990 was the day I became a soccer fan. I had played soccer and I enjoyed soccer, but I had never loved soccer like I did that day and have since. I watched Ireland lose the next game to the host team, Italy. I watched in USA '94 as Ireland lost to Holland in the Round of 16 and as Roberto Baggio (Italy) placed a penalty kick so high above the cross bar I wondered if he needed glasses. I watched the final of France '98 while having lunch with my mom when France beat Brazil. Ireland had failed to qualify so I was cheering for the host country (this, of course, was prior to the Handball Henry debacle which will now ensure I hate France for the rest of my natural life). I watched Manchester United win the Treble on the world's tiniest TV while befriending the front door staff at a hostel in Paris. I watched Thun almost hold Arsenal to a tie in a pub in Thun. I hosted a pancake breakfast for the final game of Germany '06 and felt my jaw drop as Zinedine Zidane did the unthinkable to Marco Materazzi. All these memories in my life, all these important moments, tied into the beautiful game all because Ireland beat Romania in penalty kicks. What would have happened if they had lost?

My dad had taped the game, and we would watch it over and over again. I eventually started repeating the announcers as I walked around the house to make my family laugh. My dad even taped it and sent it to Ireland; when I was there in 1996, my uncle played it for me. My cousin, Frank, recently related his story of watching the game at home with his family and my cousin, Cormac (and I'm assuming all of Cormac's family but that never came up in the story) and when the game ended, they ran outside to re-enact the penalty shoot out on the green over and over again. Their memories of Italia '90 were as strong as mine, and it made me happy to know that despite growing up so far from my family, we had common moments in our lives that we would all remember.

I have come to believe that there will never be a sport moment in my life as sweet as Ireland's win over Romania. Soccer, hockey, rugby, there will be no game, no matter how important, that will stay with me the way that game did. Twenty years later, I watch a video about it and I tear up with pride at that moment. I talk about Italia '90 the way older Canadians talk about the '72 series. I reference that game like it was somehow pinnacle to the entire game of soccer and not just the island nation of Ireland. My children will know how important that game was, and likely my grandchild will too, because it really was that important.

Many thanks to Cormac for the video link.

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