Before the All Whites, there was another team of underdogs who’d captured the world’s imagination, and mine. And I don’t mean the 1982 New Zealand soccer team.
Sure, it was great to see them in the World Cup in Spain—and since I was holed up in hospital at the time getting a knee repaired, I managed to see all their games. But since the team and its management was largely made up of itinerant poms, rather than Kiwis, the excitement was more than a little muted. And the results of all those games were, let’s face it, embarrassing.
But this time it’s different, isn’t it. Today’s All Whites are not exactly all local boys, that’s true—no-one could really call naturalised Dane Winston Reid a local, not without crossing their fingers and all their toes—but in Reid and Tommy Smith and sundry other Kiwi irregulars plying their trade overseas (don’t call them amateurs) coach Ricki Herbert has scoured the world to make up a cracking team from our diaspora. A team with real character.
Just like that other team of footballing underdogs who took a whole nation on a great sporting ride in the early nineties: the Irish. As a ride, that was a hell of a good one too. I remember it well.
Honorary Irishman Jack Charlton had put together a team made up from the Irish diaspora, from anyone who’d ever had a drink in Kilburn. From that famous game in 1988, when they beat the English 1-0 in the Euro champs in Stuttgart, to reaching the Quarter Finals in the 1994 World Cup, it was a haze of success and celebrations that I was lucky enough to follow. I blame my Irish drinking companions for that. Too many years drinking with Irishmen in London got me bitten with their World Cup bug, but sure and everything it was a great time to follow Irish soccer.
And until last week, that 1994 tournament was the last time I watched a soccer game. But as I wandered home on Monday morning after yelling my head off in an Italian restaurant in Auckland (thanks to everyone at Gina’s), the parallels almost made my smile wider.
The time in the morning was the same, and it was still an Italian restaurant. But that time it had been in a little village in the west of England, and the Italian staff were far less gracious than the fine people at Gina’s when that famous first-half goal by Glaswegian Irishman Ray Houghton followed by seventy minutes of resolute defence gave Ireland their famous victory over an Italy featuring football icons such as Roberto Baggio and Roberto Donadoni, neither of whom were able to score. “Ooh aah Paul McGrath, Say ooh ah Paul McGrath!!”
That morning, the staff threw us out before the game was over (probably because of our singing, to be fair) so we had to enjoy the 1-0 victory over the Azzuri over the radio. But we sure as hell did enjoy it. “We’re all part of Jackie’s Army!”
You can get some idea of how much fun it all was—and could be here—from this YouTube clip celebrating Saint Jack’s team song. “Put ‘em under pressure!”
From this hilarious scene from the Roddy Doyle movie, The Van.
And from this Christy Moore song harking all the way back to that famous Irish victory over England in Stuttgart in 1988.
PS: For all the fun that was, this is why I haven’t watched soccer since then: Soccer Players Faking Injuries.