Earlier, I compared the plight of the Boston Celtics and The Republic of Ireland (soccer) football team. The similarities do not end there. Today, the Irish fans and, last week, the Celtics fans stood behind their teams like few fans do and produced moments that would give any sports fans chills.
Today, the Republic of Ireland became the first nation to be eliminated at Euro 2012, when they were thrashed, 4-0, by defending European and World Champions, Spain. In reality, the match wasn’t even that close, as the Spanish put in a prime Roy Jones, Jr. type of performance where they rarely got out of second gear and coasted to an easy victory. As their team was run off the field, the Irish fans serenaded their team with a stirring rendition of “The Fields of Athenry.” That the Irish fans could fill a neutral venue with the song is all the more impressive. It reminded this Boston fan of how the fans at TD Garden got behind their Celtics despite a 20-point deficit.
This is why we watch sports. Moments like this are all too rare. Both sets of fans were aware of their teams’ limitations and still acknowledged their efforts. The Celtics were an aging and injured team; if you asked an objective Celtics fan, they would acknowledge that the Miami Heat were the better team. That the Celtics came as close as they did is a testament to the resolve and character of the team.
In the case of the Republic of Ireland, merely qualifying for Euro 2012 was an accomplishment. The Republic of Ireland had not qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Up until 1988, when Ireland qualified for their first finals in Euro 1988, Northern Ireland had been a more successful international side. In Ireland, traditional Gaelic sports like Gaelic football and hurling, along with rugby, were all more popular than soccer. Ireland also only has a semi-professional soccer league; attempts to make the League of Ireland fully professional in the 2000s went the way of the Irish economy as a whole. The players mostly play in England and none of them on a Premier League club that finished higher than ninth.
The Irish fans who came to Ukraine in droves were behind their team until the bitter end. Ireland’s last match is against Italy, who must win and hope Spain and Croatia do not draw 2-2, to secure advancement. Tactically, Italy is a better matchup for the Irish, who will be playing only for pride. If they play with as much pride as their supporters, they will give the Azurri all they can handle.