Football

How Republic Of Ireland Fans Won FIFA’s Fair Play Award In 1997

How Republic Of Ireland Fans Won FIFA’s Fair Play Award In 1997

A recognition of exemplary behaviour that promotes the spirit of fair play and compassion in association football around the world. Since 1987, FIFA has been rewarding the efforts of players, managers, teams, fans and spectators for manifesting the spirit of fair play.

Many will remember the efforts of Paolo Di Canio in 2001, Barcelona’s UNICEF sponsorship in 2007 and Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United’s goal reversal against Aston Villa in 2019. There have been many examples over the years of conduct indicative of the award.

A relatively under the radar fair play honour came 24 years ago. Accompanying Slovakia’s Josef Žovinec, who played 60 years of amateur football without receiving a yellow card, and Julie Foudy, who made efforts to combat child labour, was the Republic of Ireland fans.

World Cup Hopes

The Republic of Ireland were left distraught after bowing out of Euro 1996 qualifying in Jack Charlton's last game in charge. A draw of Romania, Lithuania, FYR Macedonia, Iceland and Liechtenstein stood between the boys in green and a trip to France. Mick McCarthy was given the task to pull it off.

It was a difficult challenge for McCarthy from the get-go. An ageing squad coupled up with a tough act to follow from. His friendlies before the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign left little to be desired. Ireland won just one of eight games in the build-up and it was evident they had to up a gear.

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2 April 1997; Jason McAteer of Republic of Ireland is escorted from the field by Tony Hickey, team security, after being sent off during the FIFA World Cup 1998 Group 8 Qualifier match between FYR Macedonia and the Republic of Ireland at the City Stadium in Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

The qualifying group started well. Wins away to Liechtenstein and at home to Macedonia saw them score eight goals and take home a maximum of six points. Things didn't continue as well as a 0-0 draw with Iceland and a 3-2 defeat to Macedonia quickly followed suit. It all depended on a result against Romania.

Unfortunately, the result they needed wasn't earned and Ireland lost 1-0 in Romania to end their hopes of topping the group. However, a young David Connolly and 35-year-old Tony Cascarino fired them towards a strong finish in the last run of games with wins over Liechtenstein, Iceland and Lithuania.

The Belgian Disaster

The Republic of Ireland were through to the 1998 World Cup play-offs. A meeting with Belgium seemed apt given both teams were showcasing a mixture of young talent and stalwart representatives. However, the Republic of Ireland were missing a key piece in Roy Keane through injury for both legs.

The first leg was held at Lansdowne Road and Denis Irwin opened the scoring with a cracker of a free-kick. Another strike from outside the box fell to the way of Belgium, with Luc Nilis the bearer of bad news. 1-1 at half-time and the game finished one goal apiece after ninety minutes. Brussels would decide it.

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15 November 1997; Republic of Ireland's Ray Houghton celebrates after scoring his side's goal wth team-mates Mark Kennedy, left, and Ian Harte during the FIFA World Cup Play-Off Second Leg match between Belgium and Republic of Ireland at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

It was a landmark game for Ray Houghton as he would score his last goal for his country. A looping header was the answer to Luis Oliveira's opener and the game drew level at 1-1. Unfortunately for Irish hopes, Luc Nilis was the nightmarish figure and scored a late goal to put Belgium through. Ireland were out.

It wouldn't be a Republic of Ireland World Cup qualification heartbreak without some controversy. The referee had overturned an Irish throw-in which ultimately led to Nilis' goal to win the game. It should have sparked outrage for fans in the stands, but their good behaviour stood out to the sports' governing body.

Leaving With Some Reward

FIFA was impressed by how the Republic of Ireland fans handled themselves throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign. An RTÉ archives clip from 1997 shows 1,200 fans travelling to Reykjavik despite Iceland only hosting twelve Irish citizens prior. An Irish pub even slashed their drink prices in half for the visit.

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Irish fans conduct during the campaign was held in even higher regard due to the actions of England fans a week before the final qualifying game in Brussels. Many English fans had bought tickets from touts for their game against Italy in Rome and ended up clashing with Italian's in the home section.

Before the Brussels match, the Belgian FA issued a double away allocation of 7,000 tickets for Irish fans to deal with the touts debacle that happened in Rome. In general, it would have been a risk to allow so many visiting fans into the stadium but given the nature and reputation of the Irish fans, the risk was quite low.

During the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign the Republic of Ireland supporters travelled in their droves to some extremely obscure destinations. Skopje in Macedonia, Eschen in Liechtenstein and Vilnius in Lithuania to name few. Especially when flights weren't as regular as they would be now.

2 April 1997; Republic of Ireland supporters arrive at ticket checkpoints prior to the FIFA World Cup 1998 Group 8 Qualifier match between FYR Macedonia and the Republic of Ireland at the City Stadium in Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Given the fact that the Belgian match ended in such controversy and the enlarged Irish support showed no signs of retaliation - it only added to FIFA's gravitation towards them. On the night of the awards ceremony in January 1998, the fans were praised for their "general good humour and excellent behaviour."

Irish fans have earned the plaudits of sporting organisations since, most recently winning a UEFA award for their conduct during the Euro 2012 campaign held in Poland and Ukraine. Despite incidents of fans overseas, and not those not too far across the Irish Sea, the Republic of Ireland fans have a habit of being on the right side of history.

See Also: Unsung Irish Heroes In The Premier League: A Starting Eleven

Jonathan Byrne

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