“My eyes have seen the glory of Espana ’82;
When little Northern Ireland showed the world what we could do….”
So goes the opening line of Northern Ireland fan favourite:”We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland.” The song goes to the very heart of the identity of the Northern Ireland international football team. “Our wee country.” The idea that you don’t need the resources of Brazil to be successful is embedded in the culture of Irish football, north and south. The Irish have long punched above their weight in the international arena. This week provided another example of this wonderful fact when lowly Northern Ireland defeated Ukraine 2-0 at the European Championships. This was a spectacular win by anyone’s standards. Michael O’Neill’s men had faltered in their opening game, losing 1-0 to Poland. Northern Ireland entered that game with a defensive mindset, seemingly determined to stifle the Polish with unrelenting pressure. The tactic worked to an extent, but eliminated Northern Ireland as an attacking force-there wasn’t a clear shot on target throughout the whole game. O’Neill was criticised for abandoning the positive philosophy that got his side to the tournament in the first place. A response was needed. And what a response it was. Northern Ireland were quite superb as they outplayed the Ukranians, with a display full of passion, commitment, and bravery.
Prior to Thursday’s game, Northern Ireland’s finest hour was the victory over Spain in 1982 to secure their place in the quarter-final of the World Cup. That win has assumed an almost mythic significance in the Northern Irish football psyche. Northern Ireland tore the form book into millions of pieces as Gerry Armstrong’s goal condemned the Spanish hosts to an embarrassing loss in their own tournament. That night in Valencia is etched into Irish football folklore, ranking alongside the Republic of Ireland’s win over Romania to reach the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup. The Irish don’t enjoy such nights very often, and that’s why they deserve to be celebrated when they come along. The victory over Ukraine has earned the right to be cherished amongst the greatest Irish sporting wins.
Sporting success has always had a disproportionate influence on Irish life and culture. The McGuigan fights, rugby Grand Slams, Rory McIroy’s rise to the top of the golfing world. They all have a special place in Irish life. Because sporting triumph means more to smaller nations and populations. The likes of England, Germany, and the USA may beg to differ, but it’s true. The reason is pretty simple. Such successes resonate with possibility and hope. Small nations aren’t expected to succeed on the international stage, and therefore such success transfixes spectators when it happens. And it’s not just the underdog factor at work here. In these austere economic times, sporting victories have the capacity to enthuse an entire nation, to give hope that potential exists beyond the daily grind. Such elation is short-lived, but it means a great deal in those fleeting, transient moments. Sport is the ultimate form of escapism, where millions can live vicariously through their heroes. It’s all very well cheering for the multi-millionaires of Manchester United or Barcelona, but we all feel much more involved when success is achieved by our international sportsmen, regardless of the pursuit. These are people we can relate to, our neighbours, whose exploits carry our own dreams and aspirations.
In a divided society, sport has always been a rallying point that unites us in the midst of polarisation. Soccer has often been the exception to this rule, where more tribal realities regularly come to bear. However, there are signs that times are changing. With both Irish football teams qualifying together for a major tournament for the first time, there had been fears that such division would manifest itself, both at home and in France. In the event, Irish fans have been magnificent thus far, their behaviour an exemplar of inclusiveness and tolerance. In the attitude of Irish supporters, a template has been set for cooperation among rival fans. In France, we have seen Irish fans united, united not in the support of one team, but united in mutual tolerance and respect. And therein lies the lesson.
Sporting rivalry doesn’t have to divide, doesn’t need to appeal to the worst tendencies of human expression. What the Euro 2016 fan experience has shown us is that sport should be about colour, fun, enthusiasm, and happiness. National identity exclusively expressed in a positive, joyful, and non-threatening way. Irish fans have set the example, but it’s clear that the vast majority of international football fans just want to cheer on their team in a positive and respectful manner. They want to participate and celebrate, celebrating great wins like Northern Ireland’s on Thursday night. In a tournament where the spectre of hooliganism has raised its ugly head once again, it’s heartening that the Irish (north and south) are leading the way in setting an alternative example. Best fans in the world. Regardless of what happens on the field, that alone is worthy of celebration. Just ask the Northern Ireland fans who are still celebrating an historic win. You don’t have to be Brazil to be successful.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11297898