After Swedish optimism, Irish fans’ hopes were shattered with the Boys in Green beaten in Bordeaux. With one more shot at redemption, we’re down but we’re not out, writes Fionn O’Dea in France.
Before the match, I’d have been happy with a point. By 70 minutes, with the game comfortably beyond us, I’d have been happy with a solitary goal; a suggestion that the Italians had something to fear from us ahead of our encounter next week, no matter how slight. Needless to say, the consolation never came.
The mood had been different upon entry, amid a race against time for a sizeable contingent of fans affected by a near total temporary shutdown of the tramline from the centre of the city. Hordes of green shirts (and one pink Wexford Youths jersey worn by a certain Teachta Dála from the South East with a unique ability to stand out) arrived just as the game was beginning – we had made it and we were hopeful.
Indeed, the first half gave reason to believe that we could be going back to our campers, tents and sleeping bags on city centre footpaths happy. We were certainly not as good as the Belgians – nowhere near in fact – but we seemed like we might contain the pressure, that we might get lucky as we had twice against Germany in qualifying. Suffice to say, that’s not quite how things panned out.
We had always considered this to be our hardest game of the tournament but nevertheless, it represents two steps back after the step forward we had seen against Sweden. Progression from our group will now require the type of long jump forward that would break records in Rio later this summer.
Despite this, there is an optimism that the Irish fans bring to major tournaments that we have yet to shake. We remember, or have been raised on stories of famous triumphs against the odds. Giant killings immortalised in song. ‘Reeling in the Years’ montages watched so many times that it feels like we were all there. Calamity on a political scale overcome in the Far East. We expect fairy tales and it hurts when they don’t arrive. But may we never lose that optimism. Right now, it’s all we have.
The comparisons to Euro 2012 are perhaps a little tired but they are also irresistible. Belgium in 2016 is Spain in 2012. Outclassed and reminded that we’re lucky to be here in the first place. The superiority of the opposition, however, numbs the disappointment only about as much as the 0.5% beer served inside the stadiums. It’s a shallow (and watery) consolation.
Crucially, our humbling on Europe’s biggest stage did not result in our mathematical elimination on this occasion. We may not be the favourites against the Italians but winning the game should see us through. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to. I’m clinging to that. And I feel about 0.5% better.