'Nothing can compete with a World Cup... Wimbledon, Brexit or my mother calling to tell me she’s fallen down the stairs'

This weekend’s juxtaposition of games, brought the summer of 1990 to mind for Eoin Butler.

NO ONE OLD enough to remember it will ever forget Ireland’s dramatic World Cup quarter-final against the hosts at Italia ‘90.

The game was played in Rome on a Saturday night.  We lost 1-0. But it was Ireland’s best showing at that tournament. Indeed it may even have been one of our national soccer side’s greatest ever performances.

I was only a kid watching at home on TV. But I remember the occasion vividly: Getting spooked early on because Jimmy Magee had taken over commentating duties from George Hamilton, who had narrated our progress through the tournament up till then. An early Niall Quinn header going close. The clear sense that we were in it to win.

Steve Staunton and Roberto Donadoni1990 Steve Staunton tries to get to grips with Roberto Donadoni. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Then Kevin Sheedy’s fluffed pass to John Aldridge. Roberto Baggio’s burst of pace. His ball to Schillaci, offloaded to Giannini, who knocked it wide to Roberto Donadoni. The AC Milan midfielder was our schoolyard hero in Ballyhaunis. He was one player who every boy I knew idolised.

But Donadoni’s piledriver of a shot wasn’t enough to put Italy in front. A flailing Packie Bonner parried it into the path of Toto Schillaci, who calmly slotted it away into the empty net. Even as kids, our devastation at the final whistle, was tempered by an awareness of how magnificently Jack Charlton’s team had represented this country on the world stage.

Then Charlie Haughey blagged his way onto the pitch and my parents started cursing at the TV screen for reasons I didn’t quite understand.

The following day was a Sunday. Somewhat less memorably, that afternoon, my father drove my sister Una and I to Tuam to see a Connacht football semi-final between Mayo and Galway. I was (and remain) a huge Mayo fan. The previous September, we’d been very unlucky to lose a very closely contested All-Ireland final to Cork.

But after the glitz and glamour of the Olympic Stadium, Tuam Stadium seemed a little drab for my tastes. After one controversial early foul, I remember people around us joking that they wanted to see the slow motion instant replay. They wanted John Giles or Eamon Dunphy to say “stop it there” and go over the incident with magic pens (which were considered cutting edge technology at the time.).

Galway beat us by two points that afternoon. There was no backdoor in those days, let alone a Super 8s. After just 70 minutes playing time, Mayo’s season was over. Yet, somehow, this defeat didn’t seem that big a deal. It was all a bit underwhelming compared to the previous night’s epic drama. Mayo would lose two closely contested All-Ireland finals later that decade in 1996 and ‘97, before Galway broke out of Connacht to win Sam outright in 1998.

Anthony Finnerty 1989 Anthony Finnerty in full flow in the 1989 All-Ireland defeat to Cork Source: James Meehan/INPHO

Faded memories of that 1990 Connacht semi-final came back to me with a start on Sunday afternoon, when I was en route through Dublin city centre to watch the 2018 World Cup final in the pub with some friends. A family in Galway jerseys got on the Luas at Heuston. In all of my excitement over France v Croatia, the fact that Galway were playing Kerry in the Super 8s in Croke Park that afternoon had completely escaped my attention. I’d barely given the game a second thought, beyond assuming that Kerry’s star forwards would probably give them the edge.

Decades may have passed since Italia ‘90. But one harsh sporting truth remains. In terms of colour, excitement and box office appeal, the GAA’s football and hurling championships simply cannot hope to compete with the draw of a World Cup.

I don’t say that to disparage the GAA. Nothing can compete with a World Cup. Wimbledon can’t. Brexit chaos can’t. Donald Trump colluding with Russia can’t. Hell, even my mother calling to tell me she’s fallen down the stairs and thinks her hip is broken can’t. (Sorry Ma, but there’s still a half hour left in this Australia v Peru game and it really could go either way…*)

Most of us rate sex pretty highly. Right? But when did you last have sex as good as that second half of Belgium v Japan? Be honest here.

But not to worry. World Cups only come around once every four years. And given the 2022 finals in Qatar will be played in November, it will be another eight years before the football and hurling championships will have to compete with one.

After the most exciting World Cup final any of us could remember finally ended in victory for France, the presidents of FIFA, France, Croatia and Russia, plus some guy in a blue suit who looked like Nigel Worthington, all lined up on the podium for the medal presentation. The winners, losers and the host nation had all acquitted themselves remarkably, so (just as Charles Haughey had found in the Olympic Stadium in 1990) there was a lot of reflected glory for the politicians to bask in

France v Croatia - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Final - Luzhniki Stadium The World Cup final medal ceremony. Source: EMPICS Sport

The medal presentation in the Moscow rain seemed to go on for hours. While it did, my friends and I debated our favourite moments from the tournament. Ronaldo’s hattrick against Spain. Neymar turning heel. Maradona’s alarming antics in the stand against Nigeria. Michy Batshuayi’s goal celebration against England that rebounded on him harder than an Elon Musk Twitter rant.

Heung-Min Son’s “They think it’s all over… it is now” extra time goal for South Korea against Germany.

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Half of Mexico City descending on the South Korean embassy there to celebrate, because that result put Mexico through to the second round.

Mbappe succeeding Messi as football’s reigning superstar literally before our eyes in Kazan. Croatia’s marathon encounter with Russia. Eamon Dunphy’s slightly worrying tendency to repeat the same talking points over and over again. My future grandchildren will probably be born with some basic awareness that Luka Modric’s grandfather was killed in the Yugoslav Civil War and Jesse Lindgard isn’t a regular starter at Man United, so frequently did Eamon inform us of these facts.

Hell, World Cup 2018 was so great that, even the parts I didn’t like, I wouldn’t have changed. France, Belgium and Brazil, arguably the three best sides at the competition, all found themselves on the same side of the draw in the knockout stages. But that was okay, because it facilitated the most riveting storyline of them all, as the tiny nation of Croatia qualified for a World Cup final.

As I walked home through the city centre that evening, I was still encountering pockets of celebrating French and subdued Croatian fans. Then, in Temple Bar, I spotted three girls in Galway jerseys posing for a selfie. I’d forgotten all about that game. I had assumed Kerry would win, but something about these girls body language told me told me that’s not how it turned out in Croke Park.

I rushed home to watch the Sunday Game. It was Tuam 1990 all over again. The game was drab. The conditions were poor. You’d have missed the old VAR. Kerry’s Killian Young got a straight red for an incident off the ball. Did he punch Ian Burke? Honestly, he could have blown the guy a kiss for all I could tell. The cameraman seemed to be filming from a rooftop about four miles away.

Galway won out easily enough in the end. Beating Kerry in Croke Park? That’s no mean accomplishment. I went to bed wondering if Shane Walsh & co might just be a surprise packet to go all the way this year. Hmmm. Mayo knocking on the door for years and then our neighbours Galway walking right on through it? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

  • N.B. No mothers were harmed in the writing of this column.

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Eoin Butler

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