Irish soccer camp rocked as tragedy unfolded

IT was just after 9am when the phone rang in my hotel room in Montecatini.

I picked it up to hear colleague Dion Fanning urgently asking: “Did you feel that?”

“What?”

“My room just seemed to shake.”

This was how I learned about the latest earthquake to hit northern Italy, though it would be a little while before the cause was officially confirmed and later still before the full gravity of what had happened over 160km away became grimly clear.

I’d not felt a thing but even if I had, I suspect I might well have attributed it to the traffic which continually rumbles by on the street outside.

But the sound of doors opening and raised Irish voices in the corridor outside my room confirmed that other colleagues had experienced the same shaking. Puzzled texts were quickly doing the rounds.

Some would later describe a variously mild-to-strong sensation of beds and even whole rooms in movement, a disorientating experience which lasted about 10 seconds.

And it seemed the higher the floor in our five-storey hotel, the more pronounced was the jolt.

But, in truth, many others had either slept through the experience, idly attributing it to something like furniture being moved in an adjacent room or, like me, felt nothing at all.

The word from the Irish team hotel, just a five-minute walk away, was similarly muted.

When the tremor hit, Giovanni Trapattoni was outside in the grounds checking on the fitness of John O’Shea and Paul McShane, and they hadn’t noticed anything amiss. Nor had FAI chief executive John Delaney and other officials who were having a meeting in the building’s ground floor. But some players in rooms higher up later said they had “felt something” though not enough to cause any concern, let alone panic.

Still, it’s not everyday the Irish experience seismic activity which, along with the always pressing need to make the most of hot copy, doubtless explains why the first headlines to break the news at home spoke of the team’s “quake drama”.

But in Montecatini any initial concern had quickly given way to humour. One reporter wondered if Trapattoni had given proper consideration to the fact that he was bringing the cream of Irish football into an earthquake zone on the very eve of Euro 2012 — fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

But as the day wore on, the jokes wore thin.

It had been about 9.05am when Twitter began carrying the first witness reports of an earthquake near Parma. On my hotel room television, it had taken BBC World Service about another 20 minutes to catch up — and even then the details were still minimal.

But gradually, the severity of the quake and its impact became clear, with reports coming in of children being evacuated from schools in Florence, about 80km from Montecatini.

At midday, an FAI press officer who was travelling with the squad issued the following statement: “An earthquake was experienced in Parma, 210km away from the Irish team’s training camp in Montecatini this morning [Tuesday, May 29]at 9.03am. Tremors were felt in Montecatini. Nothing was noticed on the ground floor of the team hotel. However, some light movement was experienced in the higher levels. Everything is fine in camp. The thoughts and prayers of Giovanni, Marco, and the squad at this time are with the dead and injured in the neighbouring Emilia Romagnan region.”

By now, the emerging news of fatalities in northern Italy as a result of the quake had drained away all the earlier laughter in Montecatini. And when an aftershock was felt in the media hotel at around one o’clock, this time no gags did the rounds.

For Cesare Prandelli, manager of Ireland’s group opponents Italy, the day had begun badly enough, with morning coverage of the latest “calciopoli” scandal dominating the papers beneath headlines such as Gazzetta Dello Sport’s “Nightmare”. Then, having already moved his squad to Parma for a last night’s friendly against Luxembourg, the manager found himself a bit player in a much bigger and altogether more nightmarish story.

The game was duly cancelled as the people of earthquake-prone northern Italy were obliged to grieve again.


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