Almost every Canadian of a certain age has their sporting ‘Where were you?‘ moment. They know exactly where they were and what they were doing when the likes of Paul Henderson, Sidney Crosby or Marie-Philip Poulin scored the history-making goals that reclaimed this country’s hockey supremacy.
For Irish people, one of the most indelible sporting moments of the past 30 years was a soccer match. Specifically the Republic of Ireland’s last-16 encounter against Romania in the 1990 edition of the World Cup.
That Ireland was in the tournament at all would have been a long shot a few years prior. Despite its tiny population, Ireland had produced world champions in disparate sports, from boxing to cycling. While soccer had always been a hugely popular sport, the Republic had never made serious inroads on the international stage. It was a source of great frustration and a little embarrassing.
Englishman Jack Charlton, who died on the weekend, changed all of that. Under his management, the Republic qualified for the European championship and the World Cup for the first time.
But Charlton did a lot more than elevate Ireland into the upper echelons of the world’s most popular sport. He changed the psyche of the entire nation.
In terms of technical skills, the Irish squad that was sent to Italy for the 1990 World Cup was capable enough. Some of the players came from the English first division, the precursor to the current English Premier League. But despite that, Charlton knew against the likes of Brazil, or the Netherlands, Ireland realistically had no chance.
So Charlton thought his way out of the situation. In the process, he came up with a playing style that was arguably the most ugly, caveman approach the game had ever seen. But his tactics and his stubborn adherence to them, despite much criticism from soccer purists, would turn out to be deadly effective.
Under Charlton’s direction, hulking Irish goalie Packie Bonner would routinely kick the ball as far as it would go down the pitch. The idea was to put the other side under immediate pressure, with an Irish forward ready to immediately intercept the ball as it landed on terra firma, and hopefully be close enough to take a shot at goal.
Twice during the round-robin phase of Italia 90, Ireland came from a goal down to get a draw, and on both occasions the caveman approach was the reason. After Niall Quinn scored late in the match against the highly favoured Dutch, their star player, Ruud Gullit, one of the most gifted and stylish players in the history of soccer, looked up to the heavens in apparent despair, as if to say, “What in the world is going on here?”
Heading into the knockout match against Romania, the whole country knew there was a huge opportunity to go even one step further. After 90 minutes of regular play, and another 30 minutes of extra time, the match went to penalties. Penalty shootouts are among the most tense experiences in sport. The pressure – especially on the penalty taker – is unreal. But remarkably, eight penalties in, no one had blinked. It was 4-4.
On Romania’s fifth kick, Ireland’s goalkeeper, who had the unorthodox tactic of waiting until after the ball was struck to make his move, saved the shot.
If the next Irish player scored, Ireland would be through. David O’Leary took an agonizing 10 seconds or so to position the ball. It was almost as if he didn’t actually want to be there, and who could blame him?
“The nation holds its breath,” the Irish television commentator said, as O’Leary finally took a run at the ball. With the hapless Romanian goalie diving in the opposite direction, the veteran Irish defender easily converted.
After that moment, Ireland was never the same again. The drama of it all, the incredible tension that led up to it and the great release at the end. The celebrations lasted for weeks. They might still be going on for all I know.
It wouldn’t matter that Ireland would later lose in the quarter-finals in a close match against tournament favourites Italy. The Irish team was welcomed back to the country as a group of heroes and Charlton was elevated to sainthood status.
While the Republic would once again qualify for the World Cup in 1994 under Charlton’s management, by that time the blitzkrieg tactics had become predictable. He would retire a few years later and while his style of play had run its course, the influence of Charlton very much lived on in Irish society. Later, some thanked/blamed him for the rise of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland in the late 1990s – a period of extraordinary economic growth that ran for about a decade and then, of course, came all crashing down.
I immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1997. I was never a huge soccer fan but I do remember how that one game affected the country.
Charlton made us believe in ourselves. He broadened people’s horizons. He changed the trajectory of what we thought was possible as a nation.