The 'Irish' are coming

November 29, 1993

The great thing about the World Cup of Soccer to be played in this country next summer is that perennial power England did not qualify. Its legion of hooligan fans, who travel only to start riots, will not come. The U.S. is self-sufficient in riots, thank you, with no need to import any.

Nor will soccer-mad Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales come. They also failed to qualify. The United Kingdom has more national soccer teams (four) than the old Soviet Union had votes in the U.N. (three).

But Ireland, a country with hardly any soccer tradition, will come with a strong team. And when the British peoples get over their shock, they will root passionately for Ireland next summer.

First, a historical digression: Modern soccer was codified in England, its universal appeal a triumph of British imperialism. In the last century, the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland combined sport with patriotism (and religion) by "rediscovering" the ancient sports of Gaelic football and hurling, playing games on Sunday (when Presbyterians refused to play) and banning players contaminated by imperialist games (soccer).

The result was that the Irish Republic and Catholic minority of Northern Ireland emerged fanatical about sports unique to Ireland and tepid about soccer, while Protestant Ulster became a talent hotbed for British soccer. Tiny Northern Ireland is often a contender in international soccer and Ireland is not, although the old rules are abandoned and Catholics do play the game, extremely well, in both parts of Ireland. But Ireland was a weak team until drastic action was taken for this World Cup.

A great English former player was made coach. He did genealogical research and produced a team of mostly English-born players who qualify by virtue of one Irish-born parent or grandparent.

The final qualifier was played between Ireland and Northern Ireland before 10,000 raving, partisan, Northern Ireland fans in Belfast. Their "Protestant" team included Catholics and more Irish-born players than the enemy "Irish" team. The match was a 1-1 tie, after which the 10,000 maniacs did not know anything better to do than stand up and cheer both sides, a marvelous all-Irish gesture that will live in legend.

On total record, Ireland is in the magic circle of 24 teams in the World Cup, and the four sides from the United Kingdom are out. But the Ireland team is truly all-British-Isles. And it couldn't happen to a worthier bunch of lads.

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