The shadow of a caveman

Pope Francis is, or rather was, well known as a football man and, in particular, as a committed supporter of the San Lorenzo club in his native Argentina, so it rather came as a shock when he recently confessed that he had never seen his fellow countryman Lionel Messi in action.

The shadow of a caveman

But it was the explanation for this ostensibly extraordinary oversight – that the Pope hasn’t watched television since 1990 – which should perhaps give us all pause in this neck of the woods.

I mean, perish the thought, but you don’t think His Holiness could possibly have settled down to watch the World Cup that year, copped an eyeful of the horror show that was Ireland versus Egypt and thought, ‘ah jeez’ – or words to that effect – ‘I can’t be having this’.

Either that or he watched his homeland being beaten by Germany in the drab conclusion to what was a generally forgettable tournament and came to much the same conclusion.

In any event, the box has been barred ever since, apparently on foot of a promise he made to the Virgin of Carmine – no, not a clue – and, since the Pope’s no net-surfer either, we’re told he relies on a member of the Swiss Guards to keep him updated on the fortunes of his beloved San Lorenzo.

(One can therefore only imagine the excruciating, dare one say, biblical levels of temptation which must have been swirling around the papal apartments last year when the Buenos Aires club contested and won their first ever Copa Libertadores final, beating Nacional of Paraguay).

The current Pontiff came to mind when I realised that today marks the 25th anniversary of the Irish team’s audience with another footballing Pope, John Paul II, which famously took place in the Vatican just ahead of their quarter-final meeting with the host nation in Rome at Italia ‘90.

At the time, the sight of a bursting-with-pride Mick Byrne standing beside the Pope seemed to chime perfectly with the sense that we were all experiencing a summer blessed like no other in this country, and I recall it took that well known heretic Eamonn McCann to point out, shortly after the Italians had knocked us out, that everything had been going swimmingly right up until the moment the boys in green met the man in white.

I say swimmingly but, of course, not everyone was saddened to see us going home from our first World Cup.

By way of striking example, this was Jeff Powell writing from Italy in the Daily Mail just after Toto Schillaci brought Ireland’s World Cup adventure to an end:

“While Dublin prepared a hero’s welcome, it felt here as if a shadow had been lifted...To proclaim caveman attrition and crass long balls as the panacea for Football 2000 betrays how bigoted a convert Charlton has become to a primitive philosophy gaining ground after ground in England for its capacity to destroy rather than delight, stifle not surprise, diminish instead of decorate the greatest game of all. The irony is that Charlton’s miserly style of football is a denial of the spirit of the people behind the team.”

And there was you thinking the Dunph had gone in studs-up at times?

The point Powell missed, of course, is that for long-suffering supporters of Irish football more accustomed to failure than success, as well for innocent newbies who simply wanted a seat on the most rollicking bandwagon to come trundling down the road in years, it mattered not one whit how Ireland progressed through the tournament, just so long as:

(a) WE WERE NOT BEATEN BY ENGLAND

(b) we hung in, after that, for as long as possible.

That, along the way, the team should then serve up moments of unprecedented national sporting drama – not least in the celebrated penalty shoot-out in Genoa – simply added to the sensation that all of us who there and here were living through a gloriously happy time in our lives, one such as we had never experienced before (not even around Euro ‘88) and might never experience again.

All of which is true.

But, still, Powell was right about the football.

Not that this came as any surprise to those of us who had been paying attention. From his very first game as manager four years previously, Jack Charlton had made crystal clear his rules of engagement: Ireland could not beat them at their game so they’d have to try to beat us at ours, and our game meant no to “fannyin’ aboot” at the back and playing through the middle and yes to defending from the front and pumping as many long balls into the final third as humanly possible. “It’s not pretty but it’s effective,” Charlton liked to say and, as Italia 90 proved, he was right on both counts.

Despite progressing to the quarter-finals, Ireland didn’t actually win a game in open play in Italy and the only two goals we scored – outside of that penalty shoot-out – came from the patented Packie-as-playmaker policy: a grimace from Bonner, a big boomer up the pitch, a bit of ping-pong at the point where the ball dropped out of the heavens and then, thanks to the educated left foot of Kevin Sheedy and the telescopic right leg of Niall Quinn, we were able to find the back of the net against England and Holland, respectively, and live to fight and celebrate another day.

So you can kind of understand why we wouldn’t have been the neutrals’ faves, just as we would hardly have found ourselves cheering on the dogged, set-piece orientated Greeks when they bored their way to an improbable Euro title in 2004.

What we will never know is if, under a different manager, the Irish team of the day could have been equally successful playing an altogether more recognisable version of the beautiful game.

Ireland’s current woes under Martin O’Neill have revived the familiar accusation that ‘we don’t have the players’ but no-one then or since has ever dared suggest the same about Charlton’s stellar squad. Bonner, Moran, McCarthy, McGrath, O’Leary, Whelan, Houghton, Townsend, Sheedy, Quinn, Cascarino, Aldridge – the main names read like a roll call of high achievers, a perfect blend of steel and style.

Twenty five years ago, would they have lit up football like they’d lit up our lives if, say, the Mick McCarthy of later years had been gaffer? Mick was the very embodiment of Charlton’s no-frills philosophy on the pitch but I don’t think he has ever been fully appreciated for what he achieved as manager at the World Cup in 2002 when, despite losing their top player on the very eve of the tournament, his team played comfortably the best football we have ever seen from an Irish side at the finals of a World Cup or European Championship, before unluckily bowing out in an epic encounter with Spain.

Of course, Italia ‘90 will live long in the Irish memory and deservedly so. There can never be another time as good as the first time. But, as the 25th anniversary nostalgia fest draws to a close, we can but wonder about how much better it might have been.

It’s perhaps the greatest unanswered - and unanswerable – question in the history of Irish sport.

Another fine Messi conspiracy

Surely the most gaping hole in the discredited allegation that Irish players were paid $10,000 bucks apiece not to kick Lionel Messi is that the player they were supposed to be trying to kick was Lionel Messi.

In other words, where most of the rest of all the world had already conspicuously failed, why would anyone think our boys were likely to do any better?

In any event, it’s still not the most bizarre conspiracy theory linked to the little genius. According to FourFourTwo magazine, during a 2012 clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Syrian state television reported that the pretty passing patterns being weaved by Messi, Iniesta and Pedro were coded messages to rebels in that country to show the routes by which arms could be smuggled in from Lebanon.

Which, when you think about it, is fair enough because in such circumstances Route One would clearly be out of the question.

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