Image via Canada.com.
Image via Canada.com.
The thing is, you knew they would lose. It's impossible to conceive of anyone actually being surprised that Croatia beat Ireland. It so improbable, it wouldn't even work as a Buddhist koan. Shortly after the draw for the finals was made, a monk tried it. He nestled himself in the grooves of his favourite meditating mat, emptied his mind of all other thoughts, and tried to imagine this hypothetical person, befuddled by the turn that events would (as they so often do) take. And as he did so, in rushed the icy winds of reality. He saw Ireland's rigid style of play and none-more-grey qualifying tournament. He saw the battering the team took at the giant paws of Russia and the race to the middle against Slovakia. He saw the fact that Ireland hadn't beaten a decent team in a competitive game for eleven years. He saw our record of three wins in sixteen tournament games. He saw it all.
And he thought again of that flummoxed person, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. He got out of the spirituality game, went home, and started a sports blog.
You knew they would lose. You knew with all the rationality your brain could marshal that it was inevitable. The case was so watertight, you could have opposed Perry Mason with it and made the thought of mildly unethical behaviour at least briefly occur to him. But then, it started. It came: that strange feeling that insinuates its way into the cracks of even seemingly blemish-free logic, wiggles about a bit, and loosens it until bits of it break off and tumble into the canyons of your mind. It happened when you saw the flags flying at home and in Poland, not in a triumphalist way so much as to say "we are here, somehow." It happened when the team walked onto the field on Sunday and your goosebumps' goosebumps got goosebumps. Maybe it's a sensation that more regular qualifiers become blasè about, but when you haven't been to a major tournament for ten years, or a European Championship for 24, to see your team actually there—in the actual stadium, on the actual pitch, in front of the actual world—is a spiderbaby moment. Feck the diagram.
Most of all, it happened because it just does, almost by definition. It happened because you give a shit. Sports fans are sometimes seen as masochists, but you wouldn't be watching if you didn't believe there was some chance of glory. If you didn't believe there was at least some minute possibility of a reward for your patience, you wouldn't even think about it. Most sports fans have to develop a fair old tolerance for anguish, and for some it's so dominant that they succumb to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, tending to their torment as if it were a stray beast they've made a pet. But there's always something. You wouldn't watch if you didn't have a bit of...
... you know what I mean. Don't make me say it. It. Begins with H. Rhymes with "nope."
Ireland made a hames of things. Croatia's first goal was cancelled out quickly enough, but after the equaliser, the game settled into just what you thought it would. There were individual errors, collective errors, tactical errors. Croatia won 3-1, and what fools we looked. It's not the first time an Ireland defeat has left us all feeling this low, but it hardly matters. Each happy fan is alike; each unhappy fan will blather on about their misfortune as if it's the worst thing that has ever happened and you—you jolly swine, you—couldn't possibly understand. Every tournament appearance had brought us something to remember fondly: Ray Houghton's goals against England and Italy in 1988 and 1994; the shootout in Genoa in 1990; Robbie Keane's late equaliser against Germany in 2002; and other sundries. But even that equaliser against Croatia, scored by Sean St Ledger, was spoiled somewhat by a spectator who presumably thought it would hilarious to bring a whistle to the game and blow it every time the ball entered the penalty area, including when Aiden McGeady sent in the free kick which was met by St Ledger's head. Millions watching on TV thought there had been an infringement. If Hell exists, that man (it has to have been a man) will be there, continually on the point of something very pleasurable, continually being interrupted by a whistle.
So we wallowed in the slough of despond, onto which fell the pea-souper of humiliation, through which could be seen the pale figure of Death, which turned out on closer inspection to be Andrés Iniesta. For next up, it's Spain. They may have failed to beat Italy, but they're Spain. They barely notice the likes of us. Their squad is filled with players who are at either Real Madrid or Barcelona, or who soon will be. Ours isn't. We garb ourselves in subfusc and march in 4-4-2, while they parade in strikerless formations, which is just showing off. And buried deep in the psyche of every Irishman is the memory of that time when he was younger and had a kickabout with those two Spanish exchange students who could do unearthly things with the ball: trap it, pass it, dribble with it…from whom did they acquire these fantastical tricks? Does he accept Irish souls?
But. Oh, so very but. It's happening again. It's the H-word that kills you, but only in the way that a life support machine would if it malfunctioned. The hurt and the anger from Sunday is still there, poised to resurface. But naughty old Haitchy is projecting images onto our minds. Here's Xavi failing to thread a through ball to David Silva. There's the ball somehow failing to cross the Irish line, again and again and again. What's that I see? Is that Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos fighting? What are they saying? "... cultural and economic hub of ..." "... Shakira's a ..." But no time for that—look! It's Richard Dunne, soaring to head home a corner kick! And who's that he's fallen on? It's Pedro and Cesc! A 7-10 split! We might just do this!
We won't. But we could. It can't happen. But it can. It's a million-to-one chance. But, as Terry Pratchett wrote, "million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten."
Oh God. Ireland's official 2002 World Cup song was a reworking of A House's "Here Come The Good Times." This year, they should have gone for the band's earlier single: "Kick Me Again, Jesus."