You Boroughs In Green: Football in Irish-America

Ireland’s latest American adventure sees them take on Mexico this week. So, who are these supporters that continually show up in New York when the Irish arrive? What is the status of soccer in the Irish-American community? And when will we see a player born and raised in the United States line out for the Boys in Green? asks Irish New Yorker Eugene O’Driscoll. 

This week, Ireland will play Mexico at the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, the new venue built a few years ago over the ruins of Giants Stadium, the site of one of our most famous victories. After playing Portugal there in 2014 and Spain in Yankee Stadium the year before, this fixture will mark the third game in five years for Ireland in the New York City area. The frequency of these meetings puts New York in the running as our favoured destination to play outside Ireland alongside London, where a biennial Craven Cottage fixture always seems to pop up.

It is a little puzzling that the FAI arranged this match and the pros and cons will inevitably be debated over the weeks that follow, with the massive showdown with Austria looming ten days later in the Aviva. As Kevin Kilbane has pointed out, the trip may boost morale in what is already a close-knit squad. It would break up the monotony and boredom of the four or five weeks between the players’ last club game and the World Cup qualifier. Martin O’Neill himself has expressed his satisfaction over the arrangement of this fixture on several occasions.

Implications for a potential playoff

Still, who knows if this is the right decision? We play Uruguay in Dublin three days later, so the date with Mexico seems unnecessary. If we do not get a win against an Austria team in a game that currently seems to be ours for the taking, questions about jet lag and fatigue will be raised. Looking even further into the future, the friendly could negatively impact our FIFA world ranking, which could have serious implications for who we play in the event that we end up in a playoff.

Regardless of the potential benefits and drawbacks of this game, it is undeniable that the reason this is being squeezed in at this stage is because it is a moneymaker for the FAI. So, who are all these supporters that continually show up in the New York area year after year to make this a profitable venture? What is the status of soccer in the Irish-American community? These may at first seem like straightforward questions but they merit further examination considering the inter-generational nuances of the American Irish community. Eventually, it leads to the question: when will we see a player born and raised in the United States line out for the Boys in Green?

The Irish turn out in their droves across the world

On the surface, the popularity of these games is not abnormal when one looks at the sporting culture of the Irish worldwide. The Irish regularly turn out in droves to support their sporting compatriots across the world time and time again, whether it be in the Connacht provincial championships early each summer in New York or London, rugby internationals, McGregor fights, or following the next big thing in Irish boxing. Whenever we qualify for a major international tournament, the Irish snap up tickets faster than almost any other nation despite the country’s relatively small population.

“Still, as a lifelong Irish football fanatic in New York on the ground, I am convinced that there are more factors which contribute to sustained Irish support at these internationals beyond the attendance of expats themselves. Furthermore, these factors signal that there is a strong potential for increased support of the Irish national team in America in the future.”

The Irish came over to America in the 80s and the decades that have followed brought with them an interest in soccer that was not shared by those that preceded them. Immigrants from the ‘80s onwards were the ones who grew up with soccer on the television back home, and experienced the Jackie Charlton years with youthful verve in contrast to many of those from earlier generations who had never played or watched the game all their lives.  Following and playing soccer has proven to be a hobby transported overseas, with Irish bars in New York City and elsewhere packed for club and international matches while several of the biggest amateur soccer clubs on the eastern seaboard are of Irish stock.

Expats from the past few decades have been able to keep in touch with Irish culture, sport, and current events more closely due to the technological innovations which have taken place in the Internet era. This heightened sense of communication with home, as well as the active interest in European soccer and the Irish national team has been transmitted to their American-born children. It is easier now than ever for our generation and those after me to maintain links to Ireland and follow the national team, which in turn, raises our own sense of Irishness. Almost every competitive Irish international fixture is readily available on one television platform or another, which is a far cry from even a decade ago, when I used to rush home to listen to games in the Staunton era on choppy radio streams.

The rise of interest in soccer by the American-born Irish is of course also part of the booming popularity of the sport in the United States more generally. Exposure on television and social media, and the explosive interest in the FIFA video game made the sport much more mainstream out here over the last decade.

“As a result, following soccer has become a new space for sons and daughters of the diaspora to assert their Irishness.”

The combination of Irish expats being able to retain stronger connections to Ireland with increasing globalisation and the rise of the sport’s popularity in America allow American-born Irish children to support the Irish national team in huge numbers with unprecedented levels of depth in knowledge and easy access to matches and information.

On the ground, the Irish in America have tapped into the sport’s emerging prominence. Lansdowne Bhoys FC, an amateur club based in the Bronx, has risen to become one of the country’s premier amateur clubs, beating a second division side in a run last year in the US Open Cup (the American equivalent to the FA Cup), a rise which has been replicated on a smaller scale from Irish clubs in other parts of the country. This is only the tip of the iceberg as young Irish-Americans’ interest in soccer continues to be channelled. At 26-years-old, I am one of the oldest American-born Irish players involved with the club while scores of other young Irish-Americans have broken into the men’s ranks in my few years there alone. The youth teams are teeming with young first and second generation Irish-Americans who are in love with the game. The direction of the sport in the Irish-American community is upward and onward, and witnessing this explosion first hand has convinced me that we will eventually see one of our own in the senior Irish set up at some point in the next decade.

The names of some of America’s all-time soccer greats have a Hibernian ring to them. Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey are both heroes among supporters of the United States and Fulham. Landon Donovan, whose grandmother hails from Kerry, would have done a job on the opposite wing to Damien Duff.

Former MLS All-Star Michael Parkhurst lobbied for a call-up before accepting an American cap when the Irish door appeared closed. Colorado Rapids’ player Shane O’Neill, who hails from a strong Gaelic football lineage, has earned a few United States underage caps, but has expressed interest in playing for Ireland if the chance comes along while New York born Ryan Meara accepted a few U-20 call-ups from the FAI a few years ago. Promising Sunderland first-teamer Lynden Gooch was eligible for Ireland and England, but put an end to any speculation by making his full competitive debut for the United States the past fall.

Still, while in the past few decades, we’ve faced numerous tug-of-wars for players born and raised in Britain, the same has yet to happen for any American born player. So, when this inevitably happens, what will be the circumstances surrounding the competition for players?

British-born, Irish-eligible players have generally made decisions based on feelings and identity, such as Kevin Kilbane in our favour and Mark Noble against us, and/or on career prospects such as the likelihood of getting games regularly for England and the prospects of qualifying for a major tournament. The dynamics of the decision will be very different from the British born Irish internationals with regards to both issues.

Playing for Ireland or USA could boil down to emotion

While playing for England over Ireland theoretically means more appearances at major finals playing in a team with stronger players, it is not as clear what would be the more prudent career choice to play for Ireland or the US. The teams are of similar quality, and the Irish side is arguably better player-for-player. The US qualifies for every World Cup without a struggle, but the lack of transatlantic flights for a European-based player and the lure of the Euros in between World Cup cycles may make Ireland a more appealing option. The lack of a clear-cut “better career option” means that decisions between the two countries would perhaps boil down more to emotion even more so than they do in cases between England and Ireland.

It is much easier to feel Irish-American than “Irish-British”, a term whose rare usage hints towards the conflicting, contradictory, confusing, and complex situation of self-identification for the “Irish in Britain”. The compatibility of feeling very Irish and very American simultaneously means that a decision would be more difficult than those of Kilbane, James McCarthy or Aiden McGeady.

I can only imagine an international tug-of-war over a coveted Irish-American which ends with hard feelings. In the United States, the idea of the nation is still elevated to a sacred level, and those deemed to disrespect or even be unappreciative to America can be met with hostility from various elements in society. The innocuous assertion that I, as someone born in America, would support the Irish team over the US in a hypothetical World Cup match has been met routinely with discomfort, and on occasion, disdain.

Giuseppe Rossi was born and raised in an Italian-American household and community in New Jersey, leaving at 13 to join Parma’s academy in Italy before eventually embarking on a formidable senior career which has included 30 senior caps and stops at Manchester United, Villarreal, and Fiorentina. He declared to play for Italy at a young age, and did not waver despite overtures from the United States at various points in his career. That decision has been continually met by general disgust, inability to comprehend, and accusations of treachery from many elements within the support of the United States. Even US Men’s National Team Manager Bruce Arena has explicitly shown a lack of sensitivity and understanding on the issue, going on the record as saying “Rossi’s American, not Italian”. I imagine that any declaration to play for Ireland from a player of a similar calibre will also be met with misunderstanding, disappointment, and occasional accusations of treachery, albeit thankfully without sectarian undertones expressed towards our Scottish-born players.

The histories of Ireland and the United States have been entwined for centuries, attributable to the sheer amount of migration. The Irish national team has enjoyed the continued support of Irish-Americans on US trips consistently since the Charlton days. Yet, cult hero Joe Lapira notwithstanding, our player pool has not benefited from the Irish-American population. This will undoubtedly change in the future. I, for one, am looking forward to someone from the 33rd county lining out for the Boys in Green.

Eugene O’Driscoll is an Irish New Yorker who, outside of his footballing interests, is an historian. Follow Eugene on Twitter: @theresonly1geno

Facebook comments:

Leave a Reply

Or