Archive for the ‘Four Continent Football’ Category

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

It seemed over a two decade period that Shamrock Rovers had played home games in the four corners of the world even if that wasn’t actually the case. This time three years ago everyone at the club was building up for probably the biggest home game ever – our first proper home match since the eviction from Milltown back in 1986.

I’ve reminised recently about attending football matches across four continents including Asia, South America and Africa but in this final blogpost of Four Continent Football, we are in Europe and I’m bringing it back home for Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght.

Since leaving Milltown, it was only really in the time period at the RDS (1990 to 1996) that it felt like they were home games for Rovers. In the years since Milltown, home matches were played in various grounds rented off our rivals including playing in Tolka Park, Dalymount Park, Richmond Park and, probably most embarrasingly, Turners Cross. That night in Cork when the Hoops ran out to play a home game over 250km from Dublin not actually wearing hoops but their away strip, was one of the very many low points that has surrounded the club during my time as a supporter.

The build-up to certain big games can seem like years but the build up to Rovers’ first game in Tallaght was that, it was over a decade in the making. Planning Permission had been granted in 1997, the sod had been turned with the builders coming on the site in 2000, they came off site the following year, and finally come back on the site in May 2008. In that period Rovers went bust, had the fans take over the club and got relegated. South Dublin County Council had taken ownership of the site and a lengthy court case had ensued when the GAA tried unsuccesfully to get their grubby little hands on the keys to access the stadium.

When the 2009 fixtures came out, we could finally see in black and white Rovers were finally scheduled to play in Tallaght. There was symmtery to the fixture with Sligo Rovers providing the opposition for the first game in Tallaght, just as they had done for the final game in Milltown. The first game in the RDS back in 1990 was awful and half of the 20,000 crowd didn’t come back for the next game. I was somewhat worried that the game would be an anti-climax but it wasn’t. It was everything I’d hoped for and more. There were goals, there was drama and there was a Shamrock Rovers win. We’ve kept coming back for more ever since.

That day so many people came up to me in work and wished me and the club well. It was one of those days where it was very hard to concentrate on anything but the match. At around 4 o’clock my boss told me to head off. He knew what it meant for me. Everyone knew what it meant. I got countless e-mail and texts from friends telling me to enjoy the game and enjoy it I would. When I got into stadium, people were hugging each other. This was the moment we had dreamed about for so long and now it was a reality. People were walking around trying to take it all in with a permanent smile on their faces and a ball hadn’t even been kicked at that stage.

As well as being Rovers’ first game in Tallaght, it was Michael O’Neill’s first home game in charge of Rovers. It was a much changed Rovers side with a new strike partnership of Dessie Baker and Gary Twigg. The fans were wondering who this Twigg player was that O’Neill had paid out a transfer fee for to bring from the Scottish Second Division and could he combine with Baker, a player most thought was past it.

It was telling last December when Michael O’Neill took leave of Shamrock Rovers that he spoke about that night. He was asked about what he would remember most from this tenure in Tallaght. He didn’t pick winning one of the three major trophies claimed during his time managing Rovers or one of those amazing nights against a heavyweight of European football like Real Madrid, Juventus, Partizan Belgrade or Spurs. “The most enjoyable night was my first night here at Tallaght, when we beat Sligo,” recalled O’Neill of opening night in the new stadium. “To see the look on the supporters faces after being 20 years on the road and just to see what it meant for them was fantastic.”
The passion and noise generated as the teams came out was almost overwhelming and many a tear was shed on the night. 22 years of pent up frustration at the loss of Milltown and a home of our own, spilled out in a wall of noise when the teams emerged. I certainly let out a primiordal roar anyway!

It was a horrible night weather wise in Tallaght but in every other way it was perfect. If we were wondering would Twigg do the business in Tallaght, we weren’t wondering much longer after the opening period of the game. First Twigg had a goal dissallowed. Then after 18 minutes we saw what we now know as classic Gary Twigg. He got a sniff of the ball in the box and scored. It seemed that as soon as he swiviled and got his shot away over his shoulder, the ball was in the back of the net and he was celebrating in front of the Ultras.

On opening night, there was only one stand constructed in the stadium and it was filled to 3,500 capacity and probably a bit more! In front of the live TV cameras, Shamrock Rovers searched out a second goal early in the second half and got it. Ollie Cahill made a great run down the left and found Dessie Baker whose finish put the Hoops 2-0 in front. The Baker-Twigg strikeforce would continue to do damage during the rest of the season with Rovers finishing runner’s up in the league at the end of the year.

This wasn’t an exhibition game though and Sligo did not come just to make up the numbers. The home side had to earn their win and there was some nervous moments toward the end of the game following Gavin Peer’s 82nd minute goal for Sligo. The Hoops never make it easy but had to go an earn that win on opening night. The celebrations at the final whistle continued long into the night. The win, our first home win in over two decades, was a long time coming. We were home.

Four Continent Football: Part 3 – Africa (Italy v Slovakia)

February 19, 2012 2 comments

Italy 2 Slovakia 3, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa (24 June 2010)

There was huge disappointment with the recent postponement of the France v Ireland Six Nations game just minutes before kick off. This of course is not the first time that Irish supporters have travelled to Stade de France and have come away feeling as if they’d been cheated. Back in 2009, I stood there stunned at Ireland’s elimination from the World Cup qualification process thanks to Thierry Henry’s ‘Fagan’-like pickpocketing of Ireland.

I had always wanted to travel to South Africa and the 2010 World Cup was the great excuse to do so but I would be going now as a neutral. My disappointment at Ireland’s elimination was heightened as I already had tickets bought and paid for had Ireland qualified. However with this money refunded to me from FIFA it allowed me to buy tickets for a number of games across one week in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

I could have written about watching the host nation play Uruguay or maybe seeing South American heavyweights of Argentina or Brazil win during the World Cup but the game that sticks in my mind is the elimination of the then World Cup holder France by Slovakia.

These are two teams that Ireland fans know reasonably well. The Italians will always bring a squad bursting with household names but they were even more familiar as it was the Italians that topped the qualification group pushing Ireland into the ill-fated play-off in Paris.

The Azzurri were lucky to have avoided defeat to Ireland when Giovanni Trapattoni’s men drew 1-1 in Bari the previous year. Slovakia would end up in Ireland’s qualifying group for this summer’s European Championships but couldn’t match the expectation that their play and results in the 2010 World Cup gave them.

During my time in Johannesburg, I had stayed in a small Pension Hotel in the Sandton district of Jo’burg. All the other guests staying there were out there for the World Cup. It was great to chat with the mix of football tourists from Australia, USA, Brazil and England who were out supporting their team and also attending some other matches of interest. The Pension was also a good place to pick up tickets for games. I managed to get my hands on a Category Four locally priced ticket at face value for the Italy v Slovakia game.

Having paid top whack of in excess of US$100 each to see the other five games I was at it was nice to pay the equivalent of €14 to see the World Champions play. However €14 doesn’t exactly get you the best seat in the house so it was an awful long trek up to the second highest row in the main stand in Ellis Park. This was the venue where Nelson Mandela presented the trophy to victorious Springbok captain Francois Pienaar after the 1997 Rugby World Cup final.

Sitting beside in the nosebleed section was one of the marketing team from Nike Mexico who obviously hadn’t exactly got a prime sponsors seat. She was quite entertained when I thanked her for her country defeating Thierry Henry’s France team earlier in the competition especially when I showed her the video of the group of Irish fans celebrating their victory in a local Joburg bar.

The Italian team had lived up to there slow starters name in World Cups having drawn their opening two games. They never really got going in this final group game until they were too far behind a Slovakian team who punished their mistakes. The Slovaks took the lead half way through the first half with a goal from Robert Vittek. They double their lead with fifteen minutes to go with Vittek, the Man of the Match, scoring again nipping in front of Cannavaro to finish. It seemed Marcelo Lippi’s were going to go tamely out of the competition having drawn 1-1 in their games to date against Paraguay and New Zealand.

The last 10 minutes were as hectic a finale you are likely to see in a World Cup group game as the two teams scored four goals with each goal momentarily silencing the Vuvuzelas in the 53,000 plus crowd. With second half substitute, Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings first Italy pull a goal back from Antonio Di Natale and then think they’ve equalized but an offside flag means they haven’t. As the World Cup holders push for the equaliser though, Robert Kopunek scores to make it 3-2 to Slovakia as he latches onto a long throw to catch out the sleepy Italian defence.

Italy reduce the deficit to one as Fabio Quagliarella scores with a delicate lob over the Slovak ‘keeper. In injury time the Italians pile on the pressure seeking the equaliser that would put them through to the next round but it isn’t to be. I venture down behind the goal to collect my flag and the Slovakian team are still celebrating down there with their fans. Italy have slunk off the pitch, no doubt wary of the reception awaiting them at home. The World Champions are out and my time in Johannesburg is up. Time to head south for a few days in Cape Town before flying home from the World Cup for another four years anyway.

Four Continent Football: Part 2 – South America (Vasco v Corinthians)

February 11, 2012 1 comment

Vasco da Gama 2 Corinthians 3, Sao Januário Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (24 July 2005)

The build up to this June’s European Championships, with the much-anticipated participation of Ireland in the tournament, is well under way. Ticket applications, team make up and the clamour for James McClean’s inclusion in the squad are all hot topics. Coming straight after our trip to Poland though, is the beginning of our qualification process for the 2014 World Cup, a tournament that will be held in Brazil.

It is 2002 since our last participation at a World Cup (see Four Continent Football – Asia) but Giovanni Trapattoni will be hoping to break our decade long absence from the World Cup and lead his boys to Brazil. The excitement generated with Ireland’s participation in the Euros would be taken to the next level if Ireland could qualify for the next tournament in the country that eats, sleeps and breaths football. What an adventure would await in Brazil.

In 2005, I got the chance to travel to Brazil where I visited the Maracana and the Sao Januário stadium where I took in a game from the top division of the Brazilian Championship when Vasco da Gama played Corinthians. In Rio de Janeiro Vasco’s home ground, the Sao Januário stadium, was built in the 1930’s and is an incredibly picturesque venue. The horseshoe shaped stands means that one end of the stadium is open where behind the goal they have their own chapel called ‘Nossa Senhora das Vitórias’ (Our Lady of Victories). Looking beyond the chapel, the view is of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue up on Corcovado.

Back in 2005, Vasco were second from bottom of the table, not great for a team with two Championships and a South American Copa Libertadores title in the previous decade. They had a new manager who had brought back a sprightly 39-year-old World Cup winner Romario to bolster his attack. Corinthians meanwhile travelled to the game missing, due to suspension, their then 20-year-old Argentinian striker, Carlos Tevez.

Vasco reserves are playing when we enter the 30,000 capacity stadium and it is just over half full by the time the early evening kick off approaches. The Vasco fans unveil a massive flag that about 50 fans had carried into the stadium on their shoulders. It covers most of one end of the ground. After the teams finish their pre-match on-field interviews, the fireworks stop and the match gets under way. The Corinthian fans arrive in the ground about 10 minutes past kick off following their six hour drive from Sao Paulo. They bring about 1,500 fans including many of their Ultras, the Gavios da Fiel or Hawks of the Faithful.

This was before the days of Brazilian football available on TV in Ireland so I was interested to see the football being much quicker tempo than I thought it would be. The tackles weren’t as crude as I’d expected but the free flowing and surprisingly open football means that the crowd are in for a feast of goals on this evening anyway.

Corinthians open the scoring after 10 minutes but this doesn’t dampen the spirits of Vasco faithful around us as they keep up their incessant chanting, singing and gesticulating. The rhythmic drumming is infectious; I was seeing football played against the famed rhythm of the samba. After 15 minutes, Vasco’s Alex Dias cuts inside, crosses and Romario finds a couple of yards of space to head home the equaliser. Corinthians then began to dominate and slot home a second goal from Jo to go in ahead at the break.

At half time the sellers do a brisk trade in beer and ice cream. This winter football is not exactly harsh with 25-degree temperatures in the ground as dusk descends on Rio. The half time refreshments work a treat with the Vasco team and their fans both coming out fighting. Off the pitch, the police go in heavy with their metre long batons to a section of the crowd below us. On the pitch, Vasco conjure up an equaliser. Corinthians back off allowing Vasco’s playmaker Morias to get a shot away with the outside of his foot that dips and bounces over the keeper.

Vasco go in search of the winner but get caught on the break. The move, like many in the game, saw players willing to take the ball from defence into attack. A couple of quick passes and the ball was sent out into the edge of the box before being rifled home into the bottom corner. Our end of the stadium goes eerily quiet as it erupts down the far end in the away section. The Vasco fans soon wake up as the Corinthians scorer cups his hands to his ears down in front of us. In injury time, some showboating from Corinthians at the corner flag, means that at the final whistle the players come together at the top of the tunnel with verbals and a few punches dished out.

I head out into the Rio night satisfied that I’ve seen a real slice of Brazilian culture – football culture. Ireland will be hoping to be playing in Brazil in 2014 but do actually have the opportunity of playing there next year. Were Ireland to win the Euros, they would of course get an invite as European Champions to the Confederations Cup being held in June 2013! So roll on back-to-back trips to Rio in 2013 and 2014 I say!

Next up in Four Continent Football will be part 3 on Africa and a game at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

Four Continent Football – Asia (Germany v Ireland)

February 10, 2012 1 comment

A recent discussion on the games that you would tell their children about got me thinking about, out of all the many matches I’ve attended, which were the stand out games? Well to help me choose I thought I’d pick a match from each continent I’ve attended games in. So here we go with this four in a row with a games chosen from Europe (a Shamrock Rovers match), South America (a Brazilian club game), Africa (a World Cup match) and one from Asia where we will start.

Germany 1 Ireland 1, Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Japan, 5 June 2002

I’ve been lucky to attend matches at seven international football tournaments but only once was I there to see Ireland play. Ten years ago was the last time Ireland qualified for such tournament. Minus their captain from the qualifying campaign (you may remember hearing about it!), Ireland travelled out to Japan for the group stages of the World Cup. In their opening game, Ireland drew 1-1 with Cameroon before facing Germany in the second group game. It is this match against Germany that will live long in my memory.

The game was played in Ibaraki, a two hour train ride from Tokyo where most of the Irish fans were based. Arriving on the afternoon of the game it was clear that the Irish fans were going to outnumber the German fans by about ten to one. The Japanese locals were much amused by the leprechaun hat wearing, infallible hammer brandishing and olé olé singing Irish fans. We even got them to join in singing “Oo-ah-konnichiwa” at the game!

The buses from the train station to the stadium were rammed with Irish and Simon Kuper, the Financial Times football correspondent, wedged beside me in the bus was trying to get opinions on Roy Keane amongst the chants of “You’ll never beat the Irish”. The chant would turn out to be correct for once as the Irish would claim one win and three draws in the tournament before elimination on penalties later in the competition.

Unlike the other Japanese venues that Ireland played in, the Kashima Soccer Stadium was an intimate enough football arena with no running track between the 35,000 in attendance and the players on the pitch. The stadium had Irish flags flying from every corner of the world and in everyone corner of the ground including at least four Shamrock Rovers flags that were there that evening. It was a sea of green behind the goal Shay Given defended in the first half and the players drew inspiration from the thousands of fans that had made the trip to Japan.

Niall Quinn: “I speak for all the players when I say that what’s really made the experience out here for us has been the supporters. They have been incredible. It really has been extraordinary. Take Ibaraki. We’re playing a world super-power in Germany, with its huge population and, yet, there just seemed to be sporadic little groups of fans wearing their colours. Then you go to the other end of the ground and there’s just this green and white all covering more than a third of the stadium. I can’t describe the boost it gives a team. If someone ever needed to measure the worth of playing for his country, it’s that kind of image that will tell him.”

Miroslav Klose put Germany 1-0 up just before the 20 minute mark with one of the five headed goals he scored in the tournament. Ireland had lots of possession in the game, close to 60%, but couldn’t break the Germans down within the 90 minutes. Ireland were facing elimination if they couldn’t salvage anything from the game, knowing realistically without a point in Ibaraki even a win against Saudi Arabia in the next game would not be enough to progress. It would have been a massive disappointment for everyone to head home without getting out of the group.

Like many Irish fans, I had put aside the horror talk of the expense of Japan to travel out to the World Cup. Tokyo with its bright lights, bullet train and sushi conveyor belt restaurants was just so different from Dublin. I remember being amazed that in Japan they had mobile phones that could take photos; this was obviously cutting edge technology back then! I’d flown out to the tournament with a certain level of expectation following qualification out of a group with Portugal and Holland. Roy Keane’s departure had soured the start of the tournament for Ireland and threatened to derail our chances of progression. My memory is that most of the fans who had travelled out would have sided with Mick McCarthy on the Roy Keane saga as they had made the effort to travel to the tournament and couldn’t understand why Keane wouldn’t just get on with it and see the “worth of playing for his country” as Quinn described earlier.

In the second half, the 7,000 or so Irish fans were in full voice willing their team on to find the equaliser. With time ticking away, I kept saying that Ireland would get one more chance and implored the team to stick it away when that opportunity arose. Style went out the window and it was a case of just calling for the ball to just go long. What happened in the 92nd minute made all the effort and cost of travelling to the Far East more than worthwhile.

A quick Gary Breen throw in is collected by Steve Finnan who pumps it long to Quinn. His flick on finds Robbie Keane who has left his marker Dietmar Hamann and burst by Carsten Ramelow to get his shot away. Would and could Oliver Kahn be beaten? Well, he gets a touch and then the ball glances the post. Time stands still in the away end until we see the net bulge. It is mayhem as the Irish fans go everywhere celebrating the goal. There is no time for Germany to find a winner and the Irish players celebrate down in front of us after the game as if they’ve won the World Cup. As Quinn said later, “The support of these people made it so much sweeter when we equalised.”

Nobody wants to leave the ground at the end. When we eventually leave, it seems we float out of the stadium propelled by the exhilaration of that injury time goal. There are hugs and high fives all around us and that is just me with any Japanese person I can see. The bus on the way back to the train station reverberates with the singing of “Who put the ball in the German net?…Robbie, Robbie”.

On the long train journey back to Tokyo, the adrenaline eventually subsides with the logistics of getting to Korea and the next round are talked through. We arrive back into Tokyo close to two in the morning. At our station about 7 or 8 fans get off the train. The Station Master has kept the station open for this incoming football special train. He bows to acknowledge us and probably the fact he can close up and go home. However, I’m thinking he has seen the game and is acknowledging the part Ireland have played in the World Cup, the exciting match finish and the fans who celebrated the draw as if it was a win.

This draw allowed us to go on to Seoul in the next round. I’d spend a week in Korea, attending three more games, watch the heartbreak of Ireland’s elimination on penalties, travel to the demilitarised zone and North Korea and spend an amazing night on the streets of Seoul with150,000 Koreans watching their team knock out the Giovanni Trapattoni led Italian team. But none of this would have happened without that late late goal in Ibaraki.

This June, Ireland get to play with the big boys once again in a major tournament after a decade looking at the party on the TV only. No doubt the country will descend into football madness. It is expected that there will be ten to fifteen thousand Irish fans travelling to Poland for the European Championships some of them veterans of Euro 88, Italia 90, USA 94 or Japan/Korea 2002. Most likely, only four players will have that big tournament experience; Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. Keane, like his team mates and the fans at home and those who will travel to Poland, will be hoping for another piece of magic like his 91 minute and 42 second strike all those years ago.

Next up in Four Continent Football will be South America and a game from the Brasileirao played in Rio de Janeiro.