To the relief of no doubt many the Euro 2016 championship have now ended, and while few pundits have called it a classic it will now be retold and relived by the fans who witnessed it for years to come, just like all such tournaments before. Before the tournament BBC screened a documentary in which Thierry Henry spoke about how during the World Cup in 1998 a victorious and multi-cultural French team helped to unite a France bitterly divided along various racial and social fault-lines. If a golden generation of talent had provided a veneer of harmony in a fractious French society back then it was still pertinent following the Paris attacks last November and now those in Nice on Thursday. It was President Hollande who proclaimed on Sunday (in likely expectation of a French victory) that “Sport unites, while politics divides”.
In Northern Ireland sport can sometimes serves to unite some against others, like many areas of life it has been affected by sectarian divisions in the past. Football is worth examining as while it is far from the only sport to be source of pride or passion in Northern Ireland but it is one familiar to both sides. A walk in any of the inner-city areas in Belfast or larger towns often reveals that like many parts of Europe, Latin America or Africa it is football that’s a language that young men speak, it’s on the stories on their lips, the jersies on their backs, the pictures on their TV screens.
In recent years, however it has been the Republic of Ireland’s team which generated the greatest excitement, much more than the North’s. Everyone in the republic remembers where they were during ‘Italia 90’ and everyone who wasn’t around then has heard everyone else’s stories again and again. Those days are at times used as a backdrop to more innocent pre-celtic tiger nostalgia, popular in literature such as Roddy Doyle novels as a common cultural reference point. Although football (or soccer as it often gets called in many parts of Ireland) has to compete with ingrained GAA traditions and ever-trendy rugby the tales of ‘the boys in green’ are still among the most enduring. Such stories contain all the ingredients of a classic Irish tale: plucky Irish underdogs on a glamorous world stage, well-lubricated fans and a grand day out in the sun. Recent exploits of the Republic’s travelling fans have only increased in the social media age. Previous adventures to Poland and the Ukraine have now been enhanced after this Summer’s escapades brought ever more tales and video clips silly songs in summer days, funny flags, free-flowing beer and a wide green ocean of craic.
In the years since the Northern Ireland football team’s last trip to the world stage in 1986 similar memories had faded. What was worse is that the national team was in danger of becoming weighed-down by fears of sectarianism among some fans and unwelcoming atmosphere at home matches. This was a particular worry in the later years of the troubles and the late 1990s, some of which I remember from personal experience, some of what happened back then is exaggerated, but a lot didn’t need to be. Among the worst examples were when Northern Ireland’s former captain Neil Lennon stepped-down from the team after abuse from his own fans. This atmosphere inspired the work of Belfast playwright Marie Jones, in “A night in November” penned and first performed in late 1994. Set between the horrific loyalist massacres of Greysteele and Loughinisland the play follows Kenneth McAllister an upwardly mobile Belfast protestant, on his journey to New York to cheer-on Jacky Charlton’s army in 1994 World Cup. Among the Republic’s fans he remarks :
“I thought back to Windsor Park…I thought of those angry men and their Trick or Treat and their cold staring eyes and their hard bitter faces and I thought… what a pity, what a shame that they can’t allow themselves to be part of this”.
For many, in particular in the Catholic community, this new era in Irish sport was something they very much wanted a part of. The southern team had left the North behind in lower leagues. Not only had many believed it sectarian by association, but as success on the pitch continued to elude the Northern team many simply opted-out of paying much attention to the team at all. Some local players choose instead to play for republic’s team (although the majority did not) as the national team seemed just another football team to ignore, just like Linfield or Crusaders. Last month Derry-born Dublin sports journalist Conan Doherty’s described his allegiance to Republic’s team in contrast to his indifference to his more local one:
“…it’s not some sort of political boycott and it’s definitely not because I don’t like them. I simply don’t care.”
But something was changing, in 2014 James Erskine’s film “Shooting for Socrates” told the David and Goliath tale of Northern Ireland’s trip to the Mexico world cup in 1986 to face the mighty Brazil. It certainly has none of the darkly comic wit or sharp observation of “A night in November” but its tales of Jackie Fullerton et al in the heat of Mexico 1986 served as a reminder to anyone who’s seen it, that even in the darker days of the troubles, Northern Ireland had had their own days in the sun, and now their time could come again.
But by the time I watched “Shooting for Socrates” it was becoming harder and harder to ignore the Northern Ireland team as they had just qualified for the European Championship. Having been to away matches only recently it was clear that there was less and less for anyone to find problematic in supporting the team, that the green and white army was indeed becoming ‘a shared space’. I was confident that more and more of Northern Ireland would get behind the team but I knew the spotlight would be on our fans too. The motto of the Northern Ireland fans was “dare to dream” but as WB Yeats reminds us that “In dreams begin responsibilities” and as the dreams would give way to realities the scrutiny of fans behaviour in a social media age would be intense. Worries over hooliganism didn’t prove unfounded as stories from English and Russian thugs in Marseilles flooded the media.
There’s no point in going over the stories of how well the Irish fans in France behaved, I’m sure you’ve heard them all by now, and I’m sure you will again. Suffice to say the stories of camaraderie between fans are real. When my brother texted to say he’d seen me in the crowd at the Wales match he almost added in disbelief ‘did I really see a lad a republic jersey next to you?!’ I don’t know which one he meant, there were a few of them near me.
Paris is in my experience is often far from welcoming to travelling sports fans, but in giving Northern and Republic of Ireland fans the Medal of the city “La Grand Vermail” Paris city hall did what Belfast city hall was sadly unable to do, award both teams and their fans. As Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo said they “are an example to fans worldwide”.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal have their trophy, Wales upstaged England to be crowned the best home nation and Iceland were truly the underdog story of the year. But Northern Ireland’s fans helped win their team back their reputation and earned a place alongside their illustrious neighbours. They won the right to tell the world a new story about themselves , the nights in November seemed long gone during those days June. As I sat in the Stade de Nice awaiting the first encounter with Poland I remember saying to myself “Good evening Europe! We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland…and we’re back!”