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When Ireland met the Pope



It’s easy to pontificate (!) about footballers lack of awareness of the world around them but when the Republic of Ireland team participated in the World Cup in Italy in 1990 they had more than the beautiful game on their minds. Of course Catholic Ireland was a different place back them, still enthralled with the church’s teachings and their figureheads who, for want of a better word, were gods to most people. It was a time when many households were dominated by ecclesiastical iconography such as the Sacred Heart wall light or the gold trimmed heavily framed image of the latest episcopal heartthrob.

World Cup Debutants

Italia ‘90 and Ireland’s first foray at the World Cup gave us an opportunity to genuflect at the altar of a new set of idols however, namely the Republic of Ireland football team. Having given so much at their first appearance at a major tournament in Euro ’88, where the Boys in Green went to within a few minutes of making the semi-finals, the Irish squad suddenly had become genuine big news. As well as filling up the pages of practically every daily newspaper the team were also having No. 1 singles in the music charts. Yep, Jack Charlton and his merry band of fish-and-chip-chomping men were big business and the country couldn’t get enough of them.

  • Penalty Shootout: Ireland v Romania

The team’s popularity skyrocketed over that glorious summer of 1990 as Ireland again overachieved by securing merited draws in the opening round of games against England, Holland and those pesky Egyptians. The drama and excitement in outdoing their 2nd round opponents Romania is well documented at this stage, but it hardly matters how many times we’ve heard those immortal George Hamilton words about a nation holding its breath because it was history in the making.

Divine Intervention

Prior to the Romania game Irish manager Jack Charlton had joked with rosary bead aficionada and physio to the team Mick Byrne that he’d take him to see the Pope if Ireland made it to the Quarter-Finals. Jack proved as good as his word as he instructed one of the Irish travelling party with good connections in the Vatican, Monsignor Liam Boyle, to arrange for a private audience with the Pope. Boyle outdid himself in facilitating a seat for the whole squad in front of His Holiness. Jack Charlton was so enamoured with the sense of occasion that he fell asleep during the ceremony but Mick Byrne had a smile as big as an upturned Halfpenny Bridge throughout. On kissing the Pope’s ring Byrne was said to have clung on to the Papal leader’s hand for several minutes before John Paul eventually wriggled free.

Holy Smoke

  • The Pope Meets The Irish Squad

Of all the Pope’s to meet it was probably fate that Ireland had sought council with John Paul II who was known as a goalkeeper of note back in his hometown of Wadowice in Poland. He was also the first Papal CEO to visit Ireland, when in 1979 he held Mass in front of a quarter of the country’s population (1¼ million people) in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. With John Paul issuing a broad smile he welcomed the Irish team as they stood up to acknowledge the rapturous round of applause from his other guests. The team were bedecked in tracksuits (tailored suits were not really the thing back then) and red faces and it amounted to an occasion of beautiful innocence. The whole experience lasted for over 3 hours, which considering the fact that Ireland were playing a World Cup Quarter-Final game against hosts Italy the very next day just illustrates how much the team operated with a very much seat-of-your-pants attitude back in those days.


Nobody Told Toto

  • Get Back In Your Basket Toto

If Ireland had hoped that their conclave in the Pope’s gaff would result in divine inspiration for their date with Italy nobody had told Toto Schillaci who clinically punished Packie Bonner’s parry from an Italian shot on goal. It was a poor mistake by Bonner but you have to admire the diminutive Italian’s cool and accurate reaction. Ireland’s journey at the World Cup was finally over but they and the Irish support had left a huge impression. In the aftermath of Ireland’s defeat Jack Charlton had the last word on events at the Vatican as he is alleged to have turned to Packie Bonner and remarked that ‘the Pope would have saved that goal’. Such was Charlton’s stock at that time that for years to come it would rankle with some of his most venerable disciples that Pope John Paul II would be bequeathed sainthood before him.

  • Author: Kevin Dunphy
Published inblogfeatureItalia '90

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