HOPE. A FOUR-LETTER word which only begins to scratch the surface of a complex and utterly confusing human emotion.
Facing into a game that we simply could not afford to lose against the reigning World and European champions, hope was the last bastion of even the most hardcore, optimistic, defiant Irish fan. Sure what else had we got?
There was dreamy talk of that 2009 night in Saint-Denis — about taking the shackles off and really going at Spain, replicating the one performance from Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure that we cling to most dearly and desperately.
And there was talk of how Ireland thrive on being the underdogs, how we perform best when our backs are to the wall.
All day, it was all we had: hope. And as the man says time and time again, that’s the four-letter word that kills you in the end.
As Italy and Croatia played their way to a 1-1 draw in Poznan earlier this evening, we himmed and hawed over what would be a better result from an Irish perspective. “Sure we’ll get a draw tonight and then we’ve every chance of going out and doing Italy when we get back to Poznan on Monday.”
Ten long years in the making, this was our day of destiny. As ITV’s Gabriel Clarke famously said as Robbie Keane tucked home that stoppage-time penalty in Suwon, “Irishmen just don’t go home early.”
It took less than four minutes for Fernando Torres to pluck us from the clouds and bring us back to a sobering reality. Spain are the world’s best team, a majestic Real/Barca behemoth, and barring a miracle there was no amount of blood, sweat, tears, passion, belief or hope that was going to live with them.
As the first half unfolded, that realisation only crystallised further and the questions started to fly. When does the Spanish warm-up end and the actual game begin? Did UEFA change the rules so that Spain have the ball for the first half and then we have it for the second?
“If Spain’s mother was in Gdansk tonight, she’d clip them around the ear and tell them to stop showing off,” chirped one wag on Twitter.
Giovanni Trapattoni tried to play his part, shaking up his dearly beloved system slightly by first withholding his team announcement and then by naming Simon Cox instead of Kevin Doyle. Keith Andrews was tireless as he tried to play his part, crunching Sergio Busquets with an early tackle that we hoped would set the tone as Roy Keane did on Marc Overmars when Holland visited Dublin in 2001.
There’s no faulting the effort and endeavour but mistakes were made. All four of the goals were avoidable to a degree, the timing almost identical to those conceded against Croatia. Did we learn nothing?
When all was said and done, the 11 brave soldiers left standing on the pitch and their manager got the reception they deserved. Ireland’s fans — by far and away the standout performer of the tournament — drowned out the Spanish celebrations with a rousing chorus of “The Fields of Athenry” that will last long into this miserable Gdansk night.
We dreamed of quarter-finals against England and revenge for Saint-Denis. When we wake up tomorrow morning, we’ll still be the first team packing our bags from Euro 2012.
We came. We saw. We stood up, sat down, took our shoes off and sang our hearts out for the Boys in Green. We painted entire cities green, partied with riot police and licked Croatians’ breasts.
But now the party’s over and it’s time to go home.