Nostalgia is a funny thing. It tends to come in bouts, fits and starts provoked by a milestone or anniversary. But can we be truly nostalgic for something when it has been near the forefront of our collective memory for a quarter of a century?
Pieces looking back on Italia ’90 have appeared across all media platforms in the last few weeks, prompted by the 25th anniversary of the tournament. Fondly remembered across the world, that competition holds particular significant in Ireland as the first World Cup for which the national team qualified.
What unfolded across that summer, however, was far more than just a football tournament. It was a culture shift, a change in mindset and the summer the entire island of Ireland fell in love with football. As such, this seminal tournament and the summer in which it occurred has been immortalised in Irish popular culture.
The matches, the drama, the fun and the celebrations have all been imprinted on the psyche of the nation and, despite the years passing, no element of Italia ’90 has faded from our memory.
And yet, given our still intimate familiarity with that summer, as the anniversary of each match comes upon us, we see a new slew of look-back articles or minute-by-minute reports aimed at reminding us of what we are unlikely ever to forget.
It is here I must make a confession. I am completely sick of all the Italia ’90 nostalgia. Not just now, but at any time. Why the curmudgeonly attitude to the most cherished Irish sporting summer of modern times? Simple jealousy.
Born two years after World Cup 1990, the Ireland I have grown up in has been directly effected by what happened that summer. The nation united behind Jackie’s Army and embraced soccer in a way it never fully had before. A bond was formed between the team and their people, one which exists to this day.
I was no different to anyone of my generation, bitten by the same football bug which began at Italia ’90, without ever getting to experience any of the joys of that once in a lifetime summer.
In the stories, the weather is always wonderful. It seemed to be sunny all day, every day in the summer of 1990. The country ground to a halt every time the ‘Boys in Green’ took to the pitch. Pubs heaved, entire roads packed into one sitting room and every set of eyes in Ireland were on the RTÉ panel as Ireland advanced on an exhilarating journey to the quarter finals.
Main streets were closed to let crowds swell onto the road for impromptu kick-a-bouts and the craic in the pub was too good to leave that bacon fry sandwiches were the dinner of choice (this heinous act was actually witnessed by this writer’s mother).
The home-coming sounded nearly enough to have made the summer on its own, over a million people thronging on O’Connell Street to see their heroes and to have the plane carrying the team dip down over the street on its descent.
All of the high spirits, as well as Ireland having a bloody good team who went out on the back of a stereotypically heroic defeat, made for one hell of a story to hear growing up. While younger, I loved hearing about how we drew with England, how long the party lasted after the nation finally exhaled when Dave O’Leary slotted his penalty away.
Where Ireland stand now as a team, however, has seen a change in my mindset. The old yarns do not fill me with the same fuzzy feeling they used to. After watching yet another draw against a qualification rival last Saturday, the last thing I wanted to do this week was read all about this amazing team we used to have before I was born, especially when I already know nearly as much as if I had lived through it.
The fallow period Ireland have been in for most of my life, save for the period around the 2002 World Cup, has provoked a great jealousy in me of all those who got to live through what will likely be Irish football’s greatest days.
Since my interest in football has developed, Ireland have suffered play-off heartache after play-off heartache, interspersed with qualifying group disasters, irrelevance and one historically bad major finals appearance. That major finals was, of course, Euro 2012. The only tournament of my lifetime which Ireland qualified for when I was of the legal drinking age and the party was over after the first game.
The high point of my fandom was the qualification and finals tournament of the 2002 World Cup. Blessed with the best squad Ireland had since the early 1990s, Mick McCarthy’s team emerged from a tough qualifying group (with a famous 1-0 win against the Netherlands at Lansdowne Road proving we were once capable of wining important qualification games) and had three memorable group games at the finals before going out to Spain at the last 16 stage.
Yet even this memorable summer for a young, impressionable football fan was slightly tempered by (less so) the Saipan incident before the tournament and (far more so) by a penalty shoot-out loss in a game Ireland could have won.
What has followed Italia ’90 is far more in keeping with Irish football history as a whole and perhaps the summer of 1990 was a never to be repeated outlier. Suffering may just be the default position of the Irish football fan, as anybody who followed the team prior to Euro’ 88 can attest to. To those who say they suffered enough to witness Italia ’90, I say “Fair enough”.
But you all still got to experience it. No matter what new depths Ireland may plunge to, I will never suffer enough to earn the right to experience Ireland’s first World Cup. That has been and gone.
I am proud to know that Ireland reached the last eight in the World Cup 25 years ago. I wish that I had been alive to witness it. Seeing the journey the team have gone on since, and the direction they appear to be heading in at the minute, I have to confess – I am completely jealous about Italia ’90.