Luck Of The Irish: How Football Has Become More Than A Game In The Republic Of Ireland

30 years of nationalism and hope in Irish soccer culminated with a miraculous run to the European Championship 2016.

There is an Irish saying that goes Tiocfaidh ár lá, which translates to "our day will come." This refers to the day that Ireland will no longer be divided; when Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will finally come together as the single nation they were before British rule.

It is a phrase that is strongly laced politically and has some negative connotations in connection with the IRA, but it is ultimately a fight for freedom guided by hope.

The hope that Irish people will one day be united.

In a country with an elite rugby team and a long tradition with locally based Gaelic sports, soccer has long been the second — if not the third — fiddle when it comes to national fanfare and athletic success.

Gaelic football and hurling were a form of cultural resistance to British rule; essentially a big middle finger to the oppressive rulers from across the Irish Sea. They were uniquely Irish sports, something that the English couldn't touch and only the Irish could succeed at. 

It took many decades for Association Football to become established in Ireland, and it wasn't until Jack Charlton became manager in 1986 that a certain belief began to rise up among Irish football fans

This hope cemented itself at Euro 1988 in West Germany. Ireland qualified for its first-ever international tournament, and it was fitting that the Irish opened the competition against hated rival England. Midfielder Ray Houghton scored a sixth-minute header after a miscued English clearance, and Ireland held on for a historic 1-0 victory.

"That's the hardest 90 minutes you'll come across," defender Kevin Moran said after the match.

Moran was a former Gaelic football star born and bred in Dublin who twice won the All-Ireland Championships. Goal-scorer Houghton was born in Scotland to an Irish father but grew up in London. They were managed by Englishman Jack Charlton.

This was the new Ireland; one step closer to unification.

Irish fervor continued into the next decade, as The Boys in Green qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. As if by fate, Ireland faced England again in the opening group-stage game. Gary Lineker opened the scoring for England inside 10 minutes, but another English backline miscue allowed Kevin Sheedy to win back possession and fire home the equalizer in the 73rd minute.

Two more draws, including one against a fantastic Dutch team, allowed Ireland to advance to the knockout stage and a matchup against Romania. A tense affair, predictably, ended as a draw after 120 minutes and went to penalties.

Manager Jack Charlton was so nervous that he bummed a cigarette off a fan in the stands — his first smoke after quitting nearly two years prior. The first four players on each side made their spot kicks, but then Irish keeper Packie Bonner became the hero by saving the fifth Romanian penalty.

David O'Leary made the subsequent spot kick and Ireland went through to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, all despite not winning a match during normal play. Decades later, Packie Bonner is still a cultural icon in the Republic of Ireland.

The dream was ended after a narrow 1-0 defeat to Italy, but the Irish team had established itself — both on the international footballing map and in the hearts of their countrymen back home.

After failing to qualify for Euro 1992, the journey continued at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, as Irish and Irish-American fans alike flocked to see their Boys in Green. This time, Ireland did not draw England again, instead, the team was matched up with Italy — the side that eliminated it in the quarterfinals four years ago — in its opening game.

More than 75,000 people packed into Giants Stadium in New York City as Ireland faced the Italians under the scorching June sun. In traditional Irish fashion, the opening match was once again a classic. Ray Houghton furthered his status in Irish lore by providing the only goal of the match after 11 minutes — a careful chip that barely avoided the outstretched arm of Italian keeper Gianluca Pagliuca.

A defeat to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals ended another magical Irish tournament run, but it marked a span of three knockout-stage runs of the course of four international competitions.

It would be eight more years before Ireland reached another tournament, this time the 2002 World Cup. 

A new generation of Irish fans was beginning to come up — one that was finally able to step out of the shadow of The Troubles that plagued Ireland for the previous three decades. Violence between Irish Republicans and Ulster Loyalists, with military help on both sides, had left thousands dead — including many civilians.

Hope was on the horizon for Ireland — both politically and on the football pitch.

A famous win over Holland in the final qualifying match ensured that the Irish, not the Dutch, advanced to the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

After an opening draw against Cameroon, Ireland had to face another footballing powerhouse: Germany.

The Kashima Soccer Stadium was filled with green jerseys and a plethora of Irish flags proclaiming which pub or town the travelling party was representing. Despite the overwhelming fan support, it was the Germans who struck first through Miroslav Klose's first-half header.

The scoreline stayed the same until injury time, when a long ball forward was flicked on by Niall Quinn and into the path of Tottenham striker Robbie Keane. A deft touch saw Keane take the ball past two defenders, and he calmly struck the ball beyond legendary German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. The Keane finish was the only goal the Germans gave up prior to a 2-0 defeat to Brazil in the tournament final.

For the Irish, a subsequent victory over Saudi Arabia was enough to advance to the knockout stage, but the heroics of Iker Casillas against the Irish in the round of 16 prevented the Gaelic nation from progressing any further. 

Following the promising World Cup performance, Ireland was unable to capitalize in ensuing years. Despite very few defeats in qualifying, a lack of wins in big matches prevented the Irish from having real success. Ireland qualified for Euro 2012 via the playoff route, but failed to advance after three straight defeats. 

That could not dampen the Irish spirits though, and despite being 4-0 down against Spain, Ireland fans belted out the classic Irish ballad "The Fields of Athenry," which tells the story of an Irish father sent to an Australian penal camp for stealing food for his children during the Great Famine in the 1840s.

A promising start to the 2016 Euro qualifying campaign saw Ireland win against Georgia and Gibraltar, the two weakest teams in the group, before facing their first real challenge against world champion Germany at the Veltins-Arena. 

Predictably, the Germans dominated, and as injury time approached, the home side led 1-0 while the visiting Irishmen had yet to collect a shot on target. But with numbers forward in the 94th minute, Wes Hoolahan lofted a searching ball to the far post, which was volleyed back in by Jeff Hendrick and prodded home by the outstretched right boot of center back John O'Shea. 

On the night of his 100th cap, skipper John O'Shea was the latest in the long line of Irish footballing heroes. 

The Irish were unable to maintain their momentum though, as a draw and defeat to Scotland and another stalemate against Poland saw them slip down the group standings. Two more wins saw them move to third as Scotland struggled, but the qualifying path for Ireland remained a difficult one.

Qualification was only guaranteed for the top two finishers in each group, with the third place sides heading for the playoffs. Ireland was four points ahead of Scotland with three matches to play, the Irish still had to face the top teams in the group — Germany and Poland. 

One win would secure a playoff spot for Ireland, but dropped points in both matches would open the door for Scotland. For an Irish team with no shortage of iconic moments, it was once again time for courageous team performance.

The atmosphere at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on the night of Oct. 8, 2015, was tense but hopeful. Much like the reverse fixture, it was very much one-way traffic in favor of Germany — which needed a draw to secure Euro qualification.

Yet, the Germans still struggled to penetrate the stout Irish back line, and, as they had done so many times before, the Irish team found a hero.

In the 70th minute, substitute goalkeeper Darren Randolph's hopeful long clearance landed beyond the German backline and at the feet of the streaking Shane Long, who, after bursting past Mats Hummels, controlled the ball with his knee and fired past Manuel Neuer and into the far corner of the German goal. 

The result was Irish ecstasy:

To beat England (no matter how despised they are) or Italy is one thing; but defeating the No. 1 team in the world in what was essentially a must-win game was the ultimate triumph in Irish football. Half an hour later, with the scoreline still the same, Ireland had secured a place in the Euro playoffs.

I remember being in the middle of a three-hour block of college classes during the match, essentially held prisoner without internet access. I texted my mom to check the final score of the game for me, and when she responded, I couldn't quite believe it.

Important texts from mom

Before smartphones, you had mom.

This time, the link-up from Randolph to Long saw the ball thumped forward by the mixed-race son of an American basketball player — competing overseas in the Irish Basketball League — and finished off by a former hurler from Tipperary.

It was all made possible by the Irish diaspora. 

Ireland lost the next match, a difficult away fixture against Poland, 2-1 — when a 2-2 draw would have been enough to put the island nation through to the tournament.

Instead, Ireland advanced to the playoffs where it would face Bosnia and Herzegovina, the highest-ranked team in the playoffs (13th in the FIFA World Rankings).

The first leg in Sarajevo was played in dense fog that thickened as the match went on, making it almost impossible to follow the proceedings on TV. 

Robbie Brady scored (apparently) in the 81st minute before the home side equalized a few minutes later, but the Irish held the advantage on away goals heading into the second leg.

When the tie continued at the Aviva, the atmosphere was electric. Ireland came out flying and went ahead through a Jonathan Walters penalty in the 23rd minute. Walters doubled Ireland's advantage with a cushioned volley nestled into the near post after a deflected free kick.

The Boys in Green would be taking over France come the summer.

With a small country like the Republic Ireland already enjoying so many famous goals and memorable moments, by now you're probably thinking: Surely there can't be any more?

But Ireland never takes the easy route. After a draw against Sweden and a defeat to Belgium to open up the group stage, Ireland needed to beat Italy to advance to the knockout stage.

The stadium was once again packed full of green, and the Irish team played one of its best matches in recent memory. Still, the scoreboard read doubles zeros with just a few minutes of the 90 left.

Enter Robbie Brady, the hero from Sarajevo who was about to etch his name permanently into the Irish history books.

But that is kind of the story of Irish history: Even in the bleakest moments there is always an illogical sense of hope.

There was hope during the darkest days of the famine.

There was hope during the worst years of tyrannical British rule.

There was hope during the bloodshed of the Irish Revolution and later during the Troubles.

At the end of the day, the Irish national team is more than about football; it embodies the desires and dreams of a nation.

It is the manifestation of the pride of a once-oppressed tribe that is still yearning to be completely free in a post-colonial world. 

Football is a way for Ireland to remove the shackles of British rule and validate itself as a stand-alone nation — defeating Britain in the very game it created.

To a United Ireland. Sláinte.

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