The 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was a brilliant, maddening tournament from an Irish perspective. We exited the tournament undefeated after Spain needed penalties to knock us out in the round of 16, secured a draw over Germany and thumped the Saudis 3-0. From the heights of late Robbie Keane's late equaliser against the Germany to the lows of going out to a 10-man Spain team, not to mention the Saipan disaster, the 2002 World Cup was a rollercoaster for Irish fans.
It was also proof, if proof were needed, that Irish football fans were willing to follow their team to the end of the world in order to support their country. Sure, Irish fans had turned out in Germany in Euro 88, Italy in Italia 90, and New York and Orlando, but travelling to Japan and Korea was a different prospect entirely. And that's before you factor in our best player leaving the team a few weeks before the tournament began.
It turned out to be a case of what doesn't kill us makes us stronger as the Irish fans gathered in large numbers to support their team, leaving the Roy Keane controversy to one side.
Irish fans started to pour into Niigata in the lead up to their group opener against Cameroon, willing to support the boys at all costs, forgetting about work and money in the process. Here's what Dubliner Alan Joyce had to say about it to the BBC.
I do not know what will happen. Many of us have not got the time off work to stay out that long, but we will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
Another group of fans spoke of the financial sacrifice they had made to support the boys in green.
We have paid 4,000 euros each but we had no hesitation in coming here. To get to this part of the world and see the culture is a one-off.
Writing for The Independent after the Cameroon game Miriam Lord had this to say;
It seemed like they materialised from nowhere on Saturday morning, but they came from everywhere to support the Irish team. Too far to travel, too expensive to finance, too difficult to get a ticket, they said. "Watch us," said the fans.
The Green Army on the march is an awesome sight. An hour before kick-off, they had annexed half of the available seating - or so it seemed. Many of the spectators in green were, in fact, Japanese supporters of the Irish. However, by most reckoning, it was agreed that an astonishing 10,000 Irish fans had made the journey.
Drawing with Cameroon was an OK result but we now had to face the mighty Germans, who had just dismissed Saudi Arabia. They were the overwhelming favourites but we had one advantage: our fans. Blogger Macdara Ferris recounted the occasion in his blog, The Beautiful Game.
Arriving on the afternoon of the game it was clear that the Irish fans were going to outnumber the German fans by about ten to one
With Ireland 1-0 down and facing elimination, Robbie Keane stepped up and scored one of the most famous goals in Irish history. The roof lifted from the stadium in Ibaraki and here's how Ferris described the feeling.
Nobody wanted to leave the ground at the end. When we eventually left, it seemed we floated out of the stadium propelled by the exhilaration of that injury time goal. There were hugs and high fives all around us and that was just me with any Japanese person I saw.
Just in case you didn't know what I was talking about here it is.
With our tails up after the Germany result we made short work of the Saudi's to ensure our qualification and a round of 16 tie against Spain.
The Spain game in Suwon, South Korea, was a difficult one to watch, we performed incredibly and deserved to win the game. Ian Harte's missed penalty was gutwrenching for everyone, however it made Robbie Keane's 88th minute spot kick even sweeter when it nestled in the back of the net.
Unfortunately it was not meant to be and we lost the game on penalties, in a special blog written after the Spain game, Liam Given, brother of Shay, recalled a wonderful anecdote which summed up the effect we'd had on the tournament hosts.
Now here's a thing you wouldn't see happen at Landsdowne, our famous . . erm . . Irish soccer stadium. Once I had untied the flag and stood up again preparing to leave, a Korean official beside me was in tears too. Saddened by seeing our tears. Amazing. I shook his hand and thanked him.
Given's anecdote sums up how the tournament hosts warmed to us as a nation, and how we would be missed, we left our mark on the tournament both out on the field and in the stands.
Our warming effect was summed up days later by tournament director Junji Ogura, who was as sad as anyone to see us exit early.
They (Irish Fans) have provided amazing support to their team. I believe they have taught all Japanese fans the joy of supporting football.
We were all very disappointed to see them bow out of the competition. They were the best supporters we have had at the World Cup.
The support for the team during that tournament was incredible, given the financial sacrifice it meant for every single fan out there. We picked the team up from a low point following the Roy Keane saga and carried them into a last 16 game which we could have so easily won.
After two strong performances against Bosnia & Herzegovina to secure our place at Euro 2016, we can't wait to see what France has in store.
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