Football

How Irish Fans Shocked The World And Filled The Giants Stadium For Ireland-Italy '94

How Irish Fans Shocked The World And Filled The Giants Stadium For Ireland-Italy '94

Originally published April 2016

Brian Glanville wrote of the Ireland-Italy game in his World Cup History Companion Book, released without fail every four years, that 'the first surprise on a day rich in surprises was that the crowd was essentially Irish, not Italian... The Irish, the most genial, good tempered and sporting of supporters, had somehow managed to acquire a huge preponderance of the tickets - many of them sold on the black market at disgracefully high prices.'

Famously, it was assumed that the opening match of Group E would be a virtual home game for the Italians.

Not only was East Rutherford a stereotypically Italian area (It was there that Paulie Walnuts became convinced he'd seen a flying saucer, much to the derision of Ralphie Cifaretto) but the favourites had been hoarding match tickets ever since the draw was made. As one of the first seeds, they had automatically been assigned a place in Group E, and thus knew from a long way out that they'd be playing in New Jersey and Washington.

As in Paris in 1965 - oh, Eamon Dunphy could have told some stories about that episode were he not absent from RTE's coverage that summer - we were resigned to being severely outnumbered in a neutral venue.

irel

However, when television anchors handed over to their commentators in the ground, it became apparent that the 75,000 capacity ground was stuffed with Irish fans. It was exclusively Irish flags which were draped over the advertising hoardings separating upper tier from lower.

Advertisement

It's estimated that approximately 50,000 Irish supporters packed into the Giants Stadium for the match. This was impressive considering that only 20,000 Irish fans flew over to the US for the tournament.

'THEY DIDN'T EVEN KNOW IT WAS ON'

In the various televised nostalgia fests which chronicle the Charlton era, Italia 90 hogs most of the limelight. The tournament that launched a thousand think pieces. Sociologists and historians have more to say on Italia 90 these days than sportswriters. USA 94, the difficult second album, has struggled to compete in the eyes of posterity.

The purists were horrified at the decision to award the World Cup to the USA. They had bid unsuccessfully for the World Cup before. While the sport in the US is nowadays associated with Democrat voting college educated types, the most prominent early champion for bringing the World Cup to America was a right-wing Republican.

The leader of America's bid for the 1986 World Cup was none other than Richard Nixon's old mucca, the Nobel Prize recipient, Henry Kissinger, who had been awarded the peace gong in 1973 for allegedly stopping a war he had done such sterling work to prolong. (His Vietnamese fellow winner, Le Duc Tho, declined the award on the compelling grounds that the war was still on).

The Americans won the right to host the '94 tournament at a crucial vote in Lausanne in the summer of 1988. In reporting the news, the New York Times informed its readers that the World Cup was 'soccer's quadrennial tournament, which is regarded in some countries as the world's premier sports event.

Advertisement

According to Ireland supporter Gary Spain, many Americans were oblivious to the enormous event which was being played out in their midst.

They didn't even know it was on. Now, it was well-run, it was very professionally organised but it was lost. Most people didn't even know it was on... It definitely got lost in the States.

I mean the following day, we checked in late for the flight to Orlando the following day after the Italy match. And one of the lads, Jim, he was there in his tricolour shorts and his Irish jersey and flip-flops. And he was chatting to this woman. And what had been on in New York that weekend had been the Gay Olympics which was actually considered a far bigger event than the World Cup.

And Jim told this woman that we were over from Ireland to compete in the Gay Olympics. And she said 'oh, yeah, well, I figured that'. And she was serious!

It got good attendances alright. But even people watching the games didn't seem... I mean, I don't know do you watch much American sports, but they were always going out for hot dogs and beers and whatever else. The American sports kinda lend themselves to that. But they were going in and out, it was annoying at times. They were quite happy to miss ten minutes to go out and get their hot dog.

It was a momentous week in American life. Spain and his friends were in a bar in New York on the eve of the game. Germany laboured past Bolivia and, rather more memorably, Diana Ross skewered a penalty wide as the World Cup got underway in Chicago.

There was far more interest in the NBA Finals. The Knicks were playing the Houston Rockets in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. Manhattan pubs were heaving with excitable Knicks fans screaming and hollering and gasping at the big screen.

They gasped some more when news anchor Tom Brokaw interrupted the basketball final and suddenly a white Bronco - which was being pursued a phalanx of cop cars - filled the screen.

After an initial wail of confusion, the crowd in the pub realised what they were seeing. No one demanded that they switch back to the basketball.

Advertisement

"I had never heard of OJ Simpson. I’d never actually heard of him.

"We were in the bar. And everyone was chatting and making noise. The Knicks, the local team were in the NBA finals. They were away somewhere, I forget who they were away to. But they cut into that to show OJ Simpson and the whole bar, all the Americans stopped... It was huge. It was far bigger than the basketball final."

'THEY MUST BE GETTING FREE GARGLE FOR WRITING THAT RUBBISH'

Tickets were an enormous headache in advance of the 1994 World Cup. The FAI were given a tiny allocation of tickets for each match. They were officially granted 3,325 tickets for each first round game.

Advertisement

Even supporters who'd attended every group game were made to sweat. Spain had turned up at every foreign stop at that qualification campaign - Seville, Riga, Copenhagen, Vaduz, Vilnius, and, most courageously of all, Belfast.

Tickets were a huge issue in advance. I had been to all 12 qualifiers and I think I was one of only about 20 or 30 fans who had done that. And I wasn't allocated a ticket originally by the FAI. But I got them by April from the FAI. But we had very few tickets. It was something like 2,000 or 3,000 tickets.

These were distributed through travel agents offering various packages. The three-match package - which some 8,000 fans availed of - cost £1500, a two-match package cost in the region of £800 - £900.

Some supporters would regret their thrifty approach. Several unfortunates opted to skip the New Jersey trip for the opener and head straight for Orlando.

Gary Spain relates one tragic story.

A lot of the guys who went with me didn't go to that (Italy) match because it was an extra six days. One of the lads who'd been with me, Paddy, he'd been to ten of the 12 qualifiers, he didn't go because he didn't have a ticket. He went straight to Orlando. It saved a lot of money. It was much cheaper to go down to Orlando and just go to the Mexico game and back up (to New Jersey) for the Norway game then. Paddy really regrets it.

Advertisement

The contention, amped up by the newspapers, that fans were being fleeced for tickets by black-marketeers turns out to have been greatly exaggerated.

The Irish Independent and the Irish Times breathlessly reported that touts were demanding north of $1,000 for tickets. On the day of the game, the Times even wrote that prices were breaking $2,000.

God bless academia. Loughborough University professor Richard Giullinotti has written a paper on the composition of the Irish support at USA 94. One footnote very kindly defines what 'craic' means for foreign readers. He spoke to one fan, Patsy from Dublin, about ticket pricing hype.

Far from breaking $2000, ticket prices were, in fact, falling rapidly as kick-off approached. Patsy reckoned 'free gargle' must have played a part in the hype.

I saw them all in the hotel bar last night and told them exactly where to go. They've been hyping the stories all week about the prices, but they've been going down, not rising. The tickets are all in the hands of the bar owners, and they're using and they're using the press to get the best price; they must be getting free gargle to write that rubbish.

There are different recollections. As Spain remembers, the day before the game, tickets were vanishingly rare and touts were still demanding big prices. Swindles abounded.

Advertisement

At one point, and I'm glad I didn't. There was an offer of a ticket and a hotel room for $800 for one night. And I actually enquired about it and I was told the hotel room was in Philadelphia.

The following day, however, the dam burst. The touts blinked first and took a hammering. Anyone who wanted a ticket got hold of a ticket. Even those indifferent to the match were offered tickets.

As it turned out, on the day of the match... I mean, I was staying in an apartment with five guys. I got a ticket the night before from the guy I was staying with. And the other four guys all got tickets on the day. Three of them for face value. One guy got a free ticket.

On the day, there were buckets of tickets.

So, it went from being, lets's say, 24 hours before the match, there wasn't a ticket to be had. And then everyone, anyone who even half looked for a ticket, got one of the day (of the match) then.

It often happens like that at sporting events but I've never seen it as dramatic as that.

But how did Irish supporters end up with such a disproportionate amount of the tickets?

The Italians got a head start in the ticket hunt. Even before Robin Williams pulled the balls out of the bowl at the draw, they'd known they were in Group E. The games would be played in the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, the RFK Stadium in Washington DC, and the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Luckily, the Italians - the most jaded and 'been there, done that' of footballing nations - were blithely confident that they'd be able to catch their team in the latter stages (after a violent early wobble, this was ultimately proven correct). They decided to make a killing on the tournament opener. Spain and others spotted what was happening.

Advertisement

"The way the draw was done at the time, Italy knew they were in New York, so they knew they were playing in that game because the top seeds were already fixed. So, we were drawn into Group E and we were drawn to play Italy but the Italians were able to buy the tickets months in advance.

"So, it was expected that the Italians would outnumber us by four or five to one.

"But what actually happened - and we laughed at the time but it actually proved to be true - the Italians reckoned they’d be around the tournament until the end so they sold the tickets to the Irish."

'THE DAY AFTER THAT'

The pre-match atmosphere was sadly overshadowed by the singing of Liza Minelli. In a rare misstep, the tournament organisers had engaged her to serenade the crowd before the game. Failing to appreciate the makeup of her audience, Liza bizarrely opted to belt out 'The Day After That', the recently selected anthem for World Aids Day.

World Aids Day wasn't for another six months. Her performance met with a muted response. Heroically, the Irish supporters drowned out the latter portion of her song with a chant of 'You'll Never Beat the Irish'.

Advertisement

The Irish-Americans in the Giants Stadium may have been a little more tolerant of Liza's singing.

It was rather missed in all the hoopla surrounding the enormous Irish support that the majority of Irish fans in the crowd didn't have Irish accents.

Only 20,000 Irish supporters had flown to the States, and many of them had headed straight for Orlando. Yet we accounted for 50,000 in the crowd in the Giants Stadium. Another subset of the Irish support that day was Irish-born folk who were living and working in the US. Yet many more were simply Americans of Irish descent.

It was a lot of Irish-Americans who were there. There was a huge Irish American community there. It was easily more than half of the Irish supporters would have been Americans.

After the game, the Irish journeyed back to Manhattan for an impromptu party in Times Square, generously stewarded by the NYPD.

They opted to celebrate the win by heading for Little Italy.

Advertisement

Irish supporter Darragh McGlynn recalls the New York public being genuinely engaged by the events in the Giants Stadium.

On the coach on the way back to Manhattan, everyone was just tooting their horn at us. We were flying flags out the window. It seemed like the whole world was aware of what had happened.

After the game, there was a big party going on in Times Square. We stopped traffic and everything. The cops were great. Most of them being Irish themselves, I suppose. They just said 'go for your life, enjoy yourselves'.

The great thing about that night was, word got through the crowd - there was thousands of us like - but word got through the crowd that we were all going to Little Italy for dinner. And I remember the police escorting us up to Little Italy, I can't remember how many blocks it was.

When we got there, the Italians were such gracious hosts. They just opened their doors, took the menus away and just fed us. Plenty of wine and meatballs and pizza. It was a really good, jubilant atmosphere.

'THE AFTERTHOUGHT'

ir

In his partially disowned 2002 autobiography, Roy Keane, deep in the grip of his uber-demanding, FAI hating phase, damned Ireland's '94 adventure by saying that our tournament effectively ended that day in the Giants Stadium.

True enough, popular history has deemed the other three games an afterthought. Spain had no problem sourcing tickets for the remainder of Ireland's World Cup. There were even empty seats at the Holland game.

Advertisement

There wasn't really any ticket issues in the end for that World Cup. There wasn't the same pressure for Mexico or Norway. They were actually selling Norway tickets from the ticket booths at the stadium the day of the Norway game. And the Holland game wasn't even sold out. That wasn't even sold out. There were loads of tickets for that, you know. But a lot of the Irish had to go home before that.

After the Mexico game, Jack Charlton, presumably barely calmed down from his contretemps with the FIFA jobsworth, bullishly told the world that 'next time we'll play Mexico in winter and see what happens'.

Aided by their natural ally, intolerable heat, the Mexicans beat Ireland 2-1. No matter how much the players suffered, their trials were as nothing compared to the drink-swilling members of the green army, who surrendered to the effects of the weather all day long.

"We went down to Orlando for the Mexico game and they were dropping like flies around the stadium," says McGlynn.

"Irish lads passing out. Drinking before the game and then just dehydrating. The first-aiders had their work cut out that day. A lot of lads were fainting. We just don't know how the lads on the pitch fared out."

Those Irish fans who weren't prepared to shovel out another £1000 to return to the heat of Orlando for the last 16 missed the enthusiastic display of a small band of Linfield supporters who had travelled to the World Cup with the intention of supporting the Republic of Ireland's opponents.

Advertisement

Giullianotti and sociologist Gerry Finn have written about this small clique of fans, whose activities don't appear to be recorded anywhere else. Also, the contention that Linfield was ever an 'exclusively' Protestant club has been contested before.

It was nowhere near as instrumental in its sectarianism as the unreported activities of a group of two dozen fans from Northern Ireland, supporters of the loyalist club, and for a time exclusively Protestant club, Linfield. Having obtained tickets from a national football authority, they had proceeded to the United States with the purpose of supporting every side the Republic of Ireland played. For these supporters apparently, the Holland fixture carried a convoluted historical symbolism, to their revered King Billy and "Orangeism", an interpretation which was incomprehensible to Irish and Dutch fans alike.

Neither Spain nor McGlynn stumbled across this party. And, when contacted, Giullanotti said his memory of these events is 'pretty hazy'. Either way, their claim is intriguing.

The American fans were charmingly oblivious to the sectarian tensions that existed within football in the North of Ireland. They didn't even attempt to wrap their heads around the motivations of this mysterious grouping.

20 years later, with the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup only days away, and Irish football in a depressed state, we returned to the site of the Giants Stadium (or at least the site of the old parking lot) and played Portugal in the new home of the New York Giants, the Metlife Stadium.

Owing to a mixture of the low stakes and the awkward time difference, the summer tour of the US was almost wholly ignored in Ireland. The 5-1 hammering against the Portuguese didn't foster any greater enthusiasm. Still, Gary Spain was in the area and dropped into the East Rutherford ground for the look. Near him was a pumped-up, teary-eyed Irish American decked out in green. He was stunned at seeing how much the Irish team meant to this man.

"He was nearly in tears and he was there in all the gear and it meant so much to him but he knew nothing about football. And there was a lot of that in 1994."

Pictures: Sportsfile

See Also: 'We're Knowledgeable Gobshites!' - The Glorious Time RTÉ Flirted With A Studio Audience For USA 94

Balls Team

You may also like