American not immune to World Cup fever

May 31, 2002|By Tom Mudd

DUBLIN - For the past week, there has been only one story here. While two nuclear nations have flirted with war, while cars ran off a bridge into the Arkansas River, while President Bush made the rounds in Europe, the only story here has been that of Roy Keane.

He kicks a leather ball around for a living. And he's pretty good at it.

The story took hold early last week, when the fiery, temperamental Keane, who captains Ireland's soccer team, approached manager Mick McCarthy and said he wanted to go home from preparations for the World Cup for personal reasons. Ireland was stunned.

By morning, though, it all seemed a bad dream after the announcement that Mr. Keane had changed his mind, and would wear the green jersey of Ireland's national team. But no sooner had the nation stopped heaving sighs of relief than the news reached these shores that Mr. Keane and Mr. McCarthy had been in a shouting match, Mr. Keane had called Mr. McCarthy a few choice names and the manager had responded by sending his best player packing.

Since then, Roy Keane has dominated the front page of every newspaper here. And I've been reading every word.

Like nearly everyone else in Ireland and in 31 of the other 32 countries whose teams have qualified, I am swooning with World Cup fever. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, I'll probably order my first pint of the day in a packed pub where lots of groggy, green-bedecked people will have gathered to watch Ireland take on Cameroon in the opening match.

I'll cheer myself hoarse if one of the 22 Irish players remaining after Mr. Keane's departure should somehow find the back of the net. I'll probably go along with or even initiate a few dozen renditions of "The Fields of Athenry" before the clock strikes nine.

I can't help it. After three years of living in Europe, I now understand what a big deal the World Cup is to everyone but my fellow countrymen back in the States. I have followed the Irish team - whose chances nearly all the experts had discounted - as it fought with grim determination to reach the finals in Japan and South Korea.

There was courageous match after courageous match. The highlight came when the boys in green, who were a man down after one of the players committed a stupid foul, managed to hold off the vaunted Dutch in a crucial game here. In the end, the team from the Netherlands, which many had written in as favorites to reach the final match of the competition, was out of the World Cup altogether. And Ireland was in.

I'm hooked. I'll be hooked for the rest of my life.

This will surprise some of the people who knew me when, because I used to sneer at soccer for its scoreless draws, for its long periods in which nothing much happens. But the baseball fan in me, the one who loves the last two or three innings of a pitchers' duel, started coming to the fore. And I found myself on the edge of my seat more than a few times.

It's amazing to me that I'm this interested. When the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, I didn't watch it for more than a minute or two. But I understand the game now, and am in love with it. I love the dazzling footwork of the players, the speed with which a certain victory can turn into a heart-rending defeat, the adrenaline surge when a player on your team shimmies through three defenders and fires on the enemy goal.

And I understand why people even more unhinged than me have been selling off cameras and jewelry and VCRs and anything else they own to raise money to get them to the other side of the world so they can see it all in person.

I'm not that mad. But I'll miss as little of the action as I can manage. And part of me hopes that Ireland, despite the loss of Roy Keane, will reach the final game in the tournament. Another part of me, a bigger part (probably my ample gut), wants the underrated American squad to be Ireland's opponent.

If that most unlikely scenario should unfold, open a window toward the end of June. Because my shouts will probably reach all the way to Baltimore.

And you might even catch a few bars of "The Fields of Athenry."

Tom Mudd, a Towson native, is a free-lance writer based in Dublin.

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