It is a small country on the fringes of Europe, a country whose people have spread knowledge, ‘craic’ and a deal of mischief to the four corners of this world. It is a country that I am immensely proud to call home.
From a sporting point of view, Ireland has always punched above its weight on the international stage. While the nation’s footballers can never lay claim to the history and prestige of Italy, its greatest moments have more often than not found a way to encompass Italy in some way or another.
Euro 2016 is the sixth international tournament that the Republic have qualified for (three World Cups plus three Euro’s). Of those six, Ireland will have played Italy in four of them with Euro 88 and the 2002 World cup being the exception.In total, the two nations have met on 14 occasions with the Italians winning nine of them and Ireland only two, even though one of them was on the biggest stage of them all. The extraordinary run of meetings between the two countries at major international events began back at Italia 90.
Personally, I was not alive to witness the events in Italy that summer, but the tales that have been regaled in the years since paint the picture of Ireland as a country that quite literally came to a standstill. This was the country’s first ever venture at a World Cup and the excitement swept through every household on the island.
Despite it being the first, it remains Ireland’s best result as the boys in green made it all the way to the quarter final. Their historic run was eventually brought to a halt by the hosts and in particular a 38th minute strike by Toto Schillaci. Italy would fail to go on and win the tournament but the Irish squad would return home to a thunderous reception as if they had indeed been crowned World champions.
Four years later, the two sides would meet again at USA 94’. This time around, the Irish would have their revenge. The match itself is best remembered in Ireland for two main reasons, one of them being Ray Houghton’s wonderful effort that gave Ireland the 1-0 victory. The other being that Steve Staunton got permission to wear a cap during the national anthem due to the blistering heat inside the Giants stadium and his naturally fair complexion.
Ireland would not qualify for another tournament until the 2002 World cup, but this time the two would not meet with both going out in the round of 16. Although, had they both won their respective matches, another quarter-final meeting would have been on the cards.
Again, there was another hiatus as Ireland did not qualify for another tournament until the Euro’s in 2012, where, perhaps to the surprise of few, we were drawn against the Italians once again. This time, we came with our own slice of Italy, as the legendary Giovanni Trapattoni guided the Irish ship, assisted by Marco Tardelli.
The competition would prove a bust for Ireland, losing convincingly in all three matches. This included a 2-0 defeat to Italy with the goals being scored by the terrible twosome of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Four years on and once again Ireland and Italy have been drawn together. If fate follows a sequence, it is Ireland’s time to win. Whatever the outcome however, ‘the luck of the Irish’ often seems to rub off on Italy. Indeed, every time the Azzurri have met Ireland in a major tournament, the Italians have progressed to the semi-final or further.
For me, one may suggest that my loyalties will be torn but in truth they are not. I love Italy, I love its Calcio, its food, people, culture, pretty much everything about it. So much so that I write countless words on the sport that makes the country tick.
But when push comes to shove, I am Irish and come the 22nd of June, there is only one country for me. Sorry Italy, you’re great, but you just can’t beat home.