It is June 2022 and the Republic of Ireland have just won the World Cup. I write this, as an emotionally drained reporter from a hotel room in Doha, Qatar, attempting to translate my feelings on this most auspicious of nights. It is proving difficult to not just splurge my over excited thoughts down in a mess of superlatives and I will put down my glass of champagne at least for a while to try to tackle this article with a modicum of professionalism.
It is about an hour since Ireland trounced Germany 3-0 in what has been described as the most complete international performance by a team at a major tournament. Just drink that sentence in. Our little nation of just 4 million inhabitants is the world’s best football team. My head is still spinning from all the congratulatory hugs and hand shakes from the journalists representing the other nations in Qatar. They waxed lyrical about how the Irish team “was the best they had ever seen”. One Brazilian reporter had tears in his eyes when he said, “No team has ever represented my love of football in such a way as your team. It was like watching a ballet directed by God himself.”
To understand how this all happened, we must go back to Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine, over ten years ago. Ireland were eliminated at the group stages of the competition after successive trouncings by Croatia, Spain and Italy. Under ageing manager Giovanni Trappationi, the Republic were undeniably embarrassed, playing with a rigidity and lack of bravery that is incomparable to the style of today’s side. The fans had realistic expectations, but they at least expected the team to be more competitive.
The performance compounded the feeling of depression over a country that was already in the grip of a crippling recession. It is hard to believe that just 10 years ago that the unemployment rate was at 14%, compare that to today’s rate of just 0.5%. Optimism about football in Ireland was at an all time low but it inspired the most important piece of literature in sporting history.
Just before Christmas 2012, a young bespectacled man pushed his way through a crowded bar to stand and stare up in to the face of the FAI Chief Executive John Delaney. Delaney could barely make out a word the young man was saying through the raucous merry making of his fellow executives, but two words were clearly audible, “Football Manifesto”. The stranger thrust out a loosely bound document to Delaney, meeting his gaze for a moment before turning and forcing his way back through the congregation and out of sight. It was two weeks before Delaney read the document and when he did finally read it, it was by accident.
“I had forgotten all about it really”, said Delaney. “I was sitting in the bathroom and grabbed something to read from my suitcase. I thought it was a different report I had picked up, but it was actually this “Manifesto”.” It was the most important blunder he ever made. The “Football Manifesto” of course has yet to be seen outside of the corridors of power in FAI headquarters, although it is set to be published and made available to the public later this year. (Christmas 2022)
Delaney gave us a unique insight into some of it’s contents. “When I opened the document, it wasn’t exactly eye catching. It was in plain black and white and was littered with crude diagrams and tactical theorems. But once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. It all made so much sense. It was inspiring”.
And inspire him it did. Delaney immediately put in to action the contents of the “Football Manifesto” The message was clear. Football was art and creativity must be encouraged. The FAI took swift action and hosted free seminars country wide detailing what they wanted implemented at all levels of football in the country. Out went the stifling old school coaches, barking insults to players who tried to express themselves as individuals on the field and in came younger fresher thinking coaches who had grown up watching the highly technical Spanish sides and saw this as the way to play football. The Manifesto gave them the blue print to apply the new way of playing to the future footballers of Ireland. Find space, express yourself and play with intelligence were the most widely heard phrases on Irish playing fields now. There was one system to be used right across all levels of the game now too, the now famous 3-1-2-3-1 formation.
By Summer 2013, the ideals of the Manifesto had been implemented and the waiting game began. But it wasn’t just football in Ireland that was going through something of a Renaissance. By the end of the Summer in 2013, Ireland began the period now known as “The Awakening”. A new political party called “The Peoples Revolutionary Party” was formed by young fresh thinking citizens who wanted to bring about some real change. They organized rallies, protests and eventually built enough support to oust the ailing and highly un popular Fine Gael party from office. The PRP immediately defaulted on the country’s massive sovereign debt that was placed on the country through the corrupt bankers and politicians of Ireland and Europe and by Summer 2014 the country had started to climb off it’s knees. Unemployment rates were falling and the country’s future looked to have been secured. The Irish football team had failed to qualify for Brazil 2014 however, failing to shake off the damage done by Giovanni Trapattoni in time. The Italian was sacked before the tournament started.
At the end of 2014, “The Awakening” continued incorporating somewhat of a creative renaissance too. The now world famous Paul Murphy invented “Indigo Hub”, the social community that users could only join by submitting an original creative piece, be it a song, poem, story or movie idea. Users could then share and rate each others submissions. We didn’t know it then, but now Indigo Hub is worth more than Facebook.
Through Indigo Hub, Ireland has produced more number one songs, platinum selling artists and million book selling authors than any country in the world. The country was producing artists with real integrity and talent replacing the dross poured out of Ireland by the late music industry mogul Louis Walsh (RIP). You may feel that I am digressing from the topic of football here but it is imperative that I explain how we came to produce footballers of such artistry.
What “The Awakening”, the cultural renaissance and things like Indigo Hub did was, create an environment and society of creative freedom and inspiration which the next generation of Irish footballers would grow up in. Qualification for Euro 2016 in France was always going to be tricky. The players adopted the new system, but the personnel required to make it work just weren’t available. Things weren’t helped by Ireland’s low world ranking, which saw them put in to more difficult qualification groups. Ireland reached the play-offs but were beaten by Belgium.
There was more misery for Irish football as they once again missed out on qualification for the World Cup in 2018 in Russia but there was some cause for optimism at under age level. Ireland’s U19s strolled to success at the European Championships playing a brand of football not seen since the great “Total Football” Dutch and Ajax sides of the 1970s. The team had those in the know purring over their performances which oozed class, creativity, artistry and intelligence in abundance.
The coach of the beaten finalists Italy said “I had never seen a youth team like it. They played with freedom, flair and guile. We couldn’t get near them. They are a special set of players.” Many of the players were fast tracked into the Senior team for the qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 in Turkey. They were the first “Football Manifesto” babies. The first footballers produced and coached during “The Awakening” and they had to be seen to be believed.
The average age of the Irish team that topped their qualifying group for Euro 2020 that contained England and Holland was just 20. In fact, England failed to qualify mainly due to their two defeats to Ireland, 3-1 in the Aviva and 2-0 at Wembley. The media couldn’t get enough of these players who were as articulate and interesting off the pitch as they were on it and the hype was beginning to grow.
The young side coasted through their group games against Italy, Slovakia and Portugal, keeping 3 clean sheets and scoring 8 times. They brushed aside Holland in the quarter finals, the 4-1 score flattering the Dutchmen. Belgium in the Semis proved trickier, but they came from a goal down to win 2-1 in the second half and secure passage to the final. On that now famous humid night in Istanbul, the Germans nicked the game 1-0 thanks to a glaring off side goal. The Irish manger recalls that night “The players were devastated. We thought we were the better team. We hit the wood work twice and it looked like there could be only one winner. When the goal went in and the flag stayed down we couldn’t believe it. With goal line technology being so successful, maybe it’s time to use something for offsides? I don’t know really. I just don’t know. This will make us stronger”.
The nation of course was disappointed, but they knew, just as the winners Germany knew, that the Irish had arrived. And the young stars just kept on coming through. By the time the World Cup 2022 in Qatar came around, Ireland were winning everything at underage level. Nobody could touch them. They had players starring for Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal every week. Even some of the most important players for Barcelona and Real Madrid were now Irish. Isn’t it odd to see the ginger locks of Patrick Hennessy strutting his stuff in the sunny climates of Spain, in the Nou Camp? But strut he does.
Ireland of course blitzed their qualifying group, winning all but one game, with the oldest member of the squad a startling 22 years old. They were everyone’s second team when they arrived in Qatar, the world loved them and the world expected big things of these young heroes. The group stages saw them dance their way past Morocco, Colombia and France. They were a joy to watch, and the sheer beauty of their style of play brought many a tear to the eyes of football fans across the globe. In the Quarter Finals against Argentina, 2 goals were enough to see off the South Americans. The second goal coming after a 26 pass move from back to front ending in a nonchalant finish by our famous number 10. In the Semi Final the Spanish were beaten before the game started. They looked like a team filled with fear. A Spanish team in awe of the Irish! The score of 2-0 didn’t flatter the boys in green as they out passed and out thought their floundering opponents.
And so to the Final against the old enemy, Germany in Doha. The Irish manager was quick to dispel any notions of revenge, “It wasn’t about revenge. But it was about showing Germany and the world that we were the better football team. We knew that this was our moment.” It is hard to put Ireland’s performance tonight into words. The score of 3-0 was, well, it could easily have been 10. I think the German coach explained it more perfectly than I ever could at full time when he said, “It was like trying to catch fire-flies without a net. They danced around and teased us so beautifully that we were caught up in admiration of the display ourselves. It felt almost rude to disrupt the patterns of play they wove. It was perfection on grass. They are simply the best football team ever”.
As the Irish captain thrust the Jules Rimet trophy skywards amid a backdrop of fireworks and green clad delirium, a bespectacled man watched on from the shadows with a wry smile. This was the squad that the “Football Manifesto” had dreamed of. It was a team that was heralded world wide. When kids played in the streets and slums of South America and Africa, it was no longer the Brazilians and Spains of the world they pretended to be, they were the Irish football team. It was a set of players that represented the shift in ideology in Ireland during “The Awakening”, the full manifestation of a decade of hard work by those who had the vision to change. It was the Republic of Ireland, the world’s greatest football team.