Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What Americans call "soccer"

It’s early 2002 and it had been several months in our rented room a stone’s throw from Dublin, Ireland, days spent searching for work every morning by going to our favorite internet café named Right-Click. We were beginning to feel less like tourists and more like locals.

Not having watched much football, I didn’t have a clue as to the enormity of the fact that Ireland had qualified to be in the World Cup. However, since it felt like something I should be interested in, our plan was to go to a nearby pub and watch them play Germany in their second match. It’s happening late morning and there’s not much else that needs to be done.

We walk up the street and it’s barren. Not “light traffic” barren, more like “ghost town that is going to spew forth vampires as soon as the sun goes down” barren. Shops are closed, streets are empty, and barely any cars are on the main roads. It was eerie.

We open the door to the closest pub with a TV and freeze – we can’t even cross the threshold it is so packed with people. The thing about pubs in Dublin is there are a lot of them; it’s a well known puzzle to try and figure out how to cross the city without passing in front of a pub (I suspect it’s impossible, they are everywhere.) We shrug and go toward the next pub.

We walk up the block a bit and open the door – same thing. Wall-to-wall people. After a couple more tries we change our strategy: in the center of downtown Dublin there is a magnificent Westin hotel which has a pub downstairs called The Mint (it used to be a huge bank vault a long time ago.) The staff are great and since tourists want to walk outside and go to an “authentic” pub it’s usually empty.

We walk downstairs and it’s extremely crowded but we can at least walk in. We slap our hands down on the bar to hold a space large enough to set our drinks. We flag down Carl the bartender who brings us pints of Guinness and gives us status of the game: “We’re losing 1 to nill. We knew Germany was going to be tough, though, for as many times Ireland has qualified to be in the world cup, Germany has won it.”

The mood is energized but somber. I look around and think that it’s a good reflection of the Irish culture. No matter what comes at them, they’ll keep fighting through it by finding strength in their ancestors doing the same for generations. British rule, potato famine, you name it – they’ll write a poem or song that will break your heart and then drink and dance because that’s how it is done on that island and how it always will be done.

The official 90 minutes are over and a few minutes are tacked on to the end to account for time spent dealing with injuries. Suddenly, an Irish player breaks past a defender. A surge of energy goes through the crowd, and then he breaks past another defender and sprints toward the goal. Everything went silent, employees stopped working, everyone held their breath save for one man in the far corner that screams “Off you go, lad! OFF YOU GO!” The player (Roy Keane) fires and scores, tying up the game. Everything erupts, people scream for drinks, an old woman wearing a hand-knitted cap with the colors of Ireland’s flag starts crying, an old man grabs me and hugs me tight and I start to tear up as well.

One minute later, a German player breaks past a defender and there is a collective gasp. I hear a woman say “Oh, sweet Jesus.” Fortunately, the next Irish player knocked the ball back up field and the game ended in a tie. Drinks are raised, people start singing, and we head outside to look for lunch.

I did not expect the scene waiting for us outside – complete chaos and celebration. I counted about 30 people with their arms locked, dancing in a circle in the streets. We walk past a store that had televisions in the window and we saw an interview of random people in a pub near where Roy Keane was born. I heard the phrase “We always knew that boy would grow up to do something special.” My wife is snapping pictures as fast as she can take them to record the storm before it passes. She aims the camera at three young men leaning out a railing a few stories up. One of them yells, “Wait! Wait a second!” We assume he is going to grab a flag or cap or something, but instead reverses his now naked backside out the railing and yells, “Ok! Go ahead!” At that point, there’s not much you can do but take the picture, so she does.

I spend the next several days caught up in World Cup fever and, despite having an American accent, feel that I am starting to really be accepted as a Dublin Man from south of the river. I learn the life lesson that it’s not about winning, it’s about celebrating life win or lose. Sing your heart out, cry if you have to, but be sure to have a drink and make some friends, because that’s how it’s done on that island.

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