It’s fair to say that Ireland has a chequered history at the football World Cup. Except for a brief period between 1990 and 2002, the Boys in Green have been notably absent from the world’s greatest football event. That doesn’t mean to say the passion was not there, the dedication lost or the enthusiasm for the sport put aside; quite the opposite in fact.
After 16 years of failing to qualify, it looked as if the 2018 World Cup was going to be Ireland’s best chance to return to the global stage. Unfortunately, a drubbing by Denmark at home and put paid to those dreams. It meant the country’s fanatical supporters were left with the difficult decision on who to support in Russia, as such circumstances demand.
The ABE Factor
In years past, and as was the case in 2018, a good portion of Irish football fans stuck to the old adage of anyone but England (ABE). This tried and tested method of backing an opposing team has deep seated political and persecutory roots that date back hundreds of years. It is just a natural and accepted position that if you should focus your energy on cheering for a team, why should it be England?
This was all well and good until events in Russia unfolded. For the first time in a very long time, the English football team somehow got their collective arses into gear and started playing decent football when it mattered. It left supporters on this side of the Irish Sea in a particularly difficult position. The natural instinct within every half decent Irish football fan is to turn away and hope that England fluff it up as they usually do. But something changed in Russia.
The Winds of Change
The 2018 World Cup was different, not just because it was held in Russia and not just because of the teams participating, but rather the feeling that it created on a global scale. This was truly a transformative event for the countries participating, and even those that weren’t. This infectious feeling that anything could happen spread across the world, and slowly started creeping into the hearts and minds of the Irish.
This is perhaps why, when a study was conducted on who was betting on who, the majority of Irish punters seemed to be backing England, along with Brazil. As the Three Lions progressed through each round, newspapers started printing articles on how Harry Kane has Irish blood, and how the enthusiasm and passion of the English should be admired. Suddenly, it became acceptable to talk about the Royal Wedding and how parts of the honeymoon would be spent in the Irish countryside.
A Chance for Something Great
The euphoria continued, as England continued to defy the odds while teams like Brazil, Argentina and Germany were knocked out. The world press began to wonder if this would finally be the year that England would bring it home. As a country with such close ties to the returning giants, it was hard not to get swept along in the wave of enthusiasm.
When England did eventually go down to Croatia in the semi-finals, a collective sigh of relief was heard, coupled with a feeling of mild disappointment. A switch had been flipped, and we could all go back to being normal again. The focus shifted to Croatia and how such an inexperienced underdog team could pull off such an inspiring run, falling short at the last hurdle.
What We Learned
At the end of the day, the 2018 World Cup had a positive and illuminating effect on Ireland and Irish sports fans. We learned that even the smallest teams can go far and with just a little bit more luck, Ireland could be back in action in four years’ time. Perhaps we also learned that despite our differences with our nearest neighbour, there is more to unite us than to pull us apart.