As a football fan, I was a bit naive when I arrived in Dublin. I assumed the Irish passion for the game was close to, if not equal to England’s well-documented fanaticism. After reading that Dublin had six professional clubs, I assumed my Irish footballing journey would simply be a matter of picking one of a few big clubs and hopping on the massive bandwagon, not unlike the new Londoner’s choice between Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, West Ham, or Fulham.
Dubliners, have different passions than Londoners. What exactly those were, I didn’t yet know, but whatever they were, they distracted Ireland’s largest city from the beautiful game, and confused them into calling it ‘soccer’ just as often as they call it ‘football’. Local teams seemed to get absolutely no love from the locals, who preferred to sport mainly Liverpool shirts, but also just as many Man U and Chelsea jerseys as you would see walking down the street in any large American city.
After much deliberation over a few clubs that were disappointingly smaller than I had hoped, I marked on my calendar the soonest possible game: St. Patrick’s Athletic vs. Swedish side Elfsborg in the UEFA Cup. The televised match that started the snowball that would eventually become my football obsession was a UEFA Cup game between two forgotten sides, so I figured that would be a great choice, even if it was only a Second Qualifying Round game. A little more research revealed that St. Patrick’s had two American players: bench-warming ‘keeper lance Friesz, who hadn’t even done enough with the club to merit inclusion on their website, and starting winger Ryan Guy, who was apparently the team’s second-leading scorer.
The modest Dublin suburb of Inchicore is home to the St. Patrick’s Athletic Football Club (the Saints), who play in intimate Richmond Park, half-surrounded by stands, with woods and apartment buildings adjacent on the other two borders. The main stand of the 6,000-seat stadium is hidden from the street by building facades, which means even if you’ve passed through Inchicore hundreds of times, but never within an hour or so of a match, you may not even know St. Pat’s exists at all. If you don’t believe me, then accept as proof the fact that I personally managed to overlook the stadium despite passing its deceptively humble red gates three or four times.
Before I begin telling my matchday story, I have to point out that the whole experience teetered on the edge of disaster early on. An advance phone call to the ticket office yielded the alarming news that there were only 50 tickets remaining, so I hopped on a bus and sweated out the 15-minute ride to Inchicore. When I arrived, the woman at the ticket office told me I had gotten the last ticket. To further complicate things, I needed my backpack to survive in the city, but could not get an affirmative answer on whether or not Irish stadiums had as strict of rules against bags as American stadiums. An inquiry of the cleaning lady at the university where I was staying yielded a reply that was both confused and confusing, but from which I gleaned that there were concerns about people breaking bottles over other people’s heads. The girls working at the campus bookstore knew even less. Finally I received a less than definitive but satisfactory answer from my call to the ticket office: “No bottles.”
After mistakenly stumbling into McDowell’s, the pub that actually (barely) looks out over the stadium itself, looking for somewhere to get food, I was directed down the street a ways to the Black Lion, a decidedly brighter and tidier place. When I asked the bartender there if St. Pat’s had a good following, he laughed a bit, smiled politely and said, “‘Round here, yeah, but just ’round here.” One lonely diner at the pub wore a St. Pat’s shirt, and I began envisioning a mild affair, much like the majority of MLS stands I had witnessed in the US. The locals in the pub who steadily filed in after work seemed much more interested in watching the mulleted Cristiano Ronaldo help with the draw for Champions League Group Play than in discussing a UEFA Cup match that was soon to be played just down the street.
After dinner, I walked back to McDowell’s, this time passing a few vendors unloading commemorative scarves (half-yellow for Elfsborg and half-red for St. Pat’s) from their cars. This did nothing to improve my impression of the team’s following. McDowell’s now housed a few calm-looking bartenders, a table of around six or seven quiet 30-somethings, half in St. Pat’s shirts, and a rowdy table of six teenagers who looked barely old enough to drink. The teenagers sat in front of a projection screen that displayed news from the English Premier League, apparently more important than the European contest soon to transpire about 50 feet behind the pub. They sipped Bulmer’s cider in between hearty practice chants for their team. Songs such as praise for the mysterious ‘Gary Dempsey’, and musical oaths of allegiance sworn to St. Patrick’s sung in a still-maturing tenor filled the mostly empty bar. This did nothing to improve my impression of the team’s following.
Still embarassed to be the only American intruding on such a sacred activity for a few pious locals, and dangerously exposed in the emptiness of the pub, I took a corner seat.
While I learned about Roman Pavlyuchenko’s rumored moved to Tottenham and how many goals Chelsea was going to win by on saturday, the population of teenagers at the table infront of the projection screen slowly ballooned. More and more young lads in St. Pat’ shirts awkwardly entered the pub to excited shouts and cheering from their friends in front of the screen. Then the stream of patrons got older and older, most of them wearing St. Pat’s red, but others casually dressed. The pub began to fill up, to my surprise, to the point where it was difficult to get past the bar itself and into the seating area.
Suddenly, as doubtless so many hopeful Americans, virgins to the European experience, have felt before, I was overcome by the excitement of hearing a chant that I had only read about in books and articles. A group of Swedish Elfsborg fans, clad in yellow and black horizontal stripes, had entered the pub to playful chants of “Who are ya? Who are ya?” from the projection screen gang. I silently applauded the brave Swedes. They must have simply wanted a few beers before the game and, opting for convenience over friendliness, happened upon the loyal following of the opposition’s stadium pub. I wondered at their story, but I didn’t wonder long. As soon as they soon spotted me in the corner and (probably assuming I was Swedish like a few of the pub patrons seemed to) spotted my noticeable lack of red in both shirt and non-existent scarf, the Swedish bumble bees took a seat next to me.
After exchanging handshakes and pleasantries, a brilliantly blonde Swede with surprisingly good English asked where I was from. After hearing that I was American he said, “You root for us then, right? Americans always root for the underdog.” While I suppose this is generally true in American sports, I had been planning on backing the home team, as much for the pleasure of joining in chants in a language that I understood as for my own general safety. I jokingly told my new Swedish friend that he could buy my loyalty with a beer, and he laughed and smiled politely, much the same as the bartender at the Black Lion had when asked about the reputation of St. Patrick’s in the community.
After hearing about, among other things, the merits of Swedish women (and the shortcomings of Swedish men after a few Swedish women who were present overheard the views of my new friend), I was feeling much friendlier with the Elfsborg crowd, and was even beginning to consider rooting for the apparently underdog visiting Swedes. Just for the sake of fairness, I sidled up next to some red-clad St. Pat’s fans who had taken a seat next to me in the interim. By this time, the pub was literally packed, and it was getting close to impossible for anyone to move around, let alone carry a full beer back to their seat. Chants and songs were exchanged between the increasingly large and rabid St. Pat’s contingent and the small, but devoted Elfsborg crew (you’d have to be dedicated to make the two-hour plane ride down from Sweden to see a game in a stadium so small it’s lack of size could prohibit you from getting a ticket).
Danny, my personal guide into the world of St. Pat’s, was a PhD student at Trinity College, where I was staying. When I asked him if the town was excited for the game, he grinned affirmatively. “This is the biggest game in the club’s history,” he told me, “if we win this, we could be playing AC Milan!” I probed further on the subject, asking about an article I had read in the Irish Times about St. Pat’s not being able to host their next round game if they defeated Elfsborg, due to the size of their stadium. Danny’s expression changed from jovial to grim. “The Irish media are slanted against Irish football,” he said, “they only want to talk about the [English] Premier League. Everyone wants to talk about and root for big teams, because it’s not cool to follow a small, local team. Besides, hurling is bigger than football for the Irish anyway.”
And there it was. The Irish, never a people to let go of tradition easily, favored the ultra-domestic sport of hurling, played by no one else in the world, to the international, beautiful game of football, loved by all people around the world (except in Canada and the US). Just like in my own country, other fans even chose to follow a team whose wealth and magnitude guaranteed international sucess, rather than cast their lot with an up-and-down local team who may not even have players with any World Cup experience.
Talking with Danny affirmed my loyalty to the Saints. My Swedish friend (whose name I never could glean) was nice, but Danny was much more personable and informative, and seemed happy to talk with me. To me, Elfsborg fans seemed simultaneously more preoccupied with getting more beer and the attention of bumble bee look-a-likes across the room for synchronized singing than with persuading a lowly, neutral American to cheer for their team. St. Patrick’s it is, then.