Irish ready to clean up in battle to retain ‘best fans’ title
Forget about football . . . real competition is to decide which team has the best supporters
For Republic of Ireland fans, at least, Euro 2016 is not all about football.
For many of them, in fact, it may not even be mainly about football.
The real competition, for which the tournament is only a front, is the unofficial one to decide which team has the best supporters.
And in this respect, at least, Ireland are the reigning European champions, or so we like to think.
The title was clinched, four years ago, on a memorable night in Gdansk: at the same game in which our actual football team was eliminated.
Even as Spain’s players were trouncing Ireland’s on the pitch, the Irish fans were going the moral equivalent of 4-0 up in the stands, thanks mainly to a spine-tingling rendition of the Fields of Athenry, to which the Spanish had no answer.
Our last fixture, against Italy, was a doubly dead rubber: the Italians don’t even enter the best supporters competition.
But having already secured the group, the Irish somehow maintained their intensity, and used the Italy game to establish themselves overall champions.
As with everything else about the Europe’s Best Supporters Competition, there are no official rules. You get points for partying, of course, and for singing in victory or defeat alike. Not being English always helps.
So, increasingly, does a capacity to create viral YouTube videos that get the message out to the world about what fun-loving scamps we all are.
But as with football itself, supporting is a competitive business at this level. And despite another promising start to a tournament, Irish fans are not having it all their own way at Euro 2016.
Before the tournament, for example, the French version of Slate magazine ran a feature on the extraordinary commitment of Turkish supporters.
Only this week, as an apparent afterthought, did it get around to a similar one on us (although it noted, encouragingly, that our viral hit videos were “too numerous” to list).
Icelandic fans have also been getting some positive press here. So have the Albanians. And then there are the Swedes.
Martin O’Neill’s players were not the only ones who fought out a close encounter with Sweden in Paris last weekend.
Irish supporters were also under pressure for a period, faced with supporters who seemed equally numerous, at least as colourful, and – it had to be admitted – better looking than us.
That being so, with no-hopers Italy again awaiting in the last group game, another good result this weekend should clinch Group E, at least.
And no disrespect to the Belgians, from whom we expect a strong challenge (not really), it would be a surprise if we lose.
As for the overall tournament, tough as the competition is, there are encouraging signs that Irish fans are upping their performance levels and finding new ways to impress.
First there was the group who changed a tyre for an elderly couple. Then there was the one who serenaded the nun. Now, most dramatically of all, Irish fans have added voluntary street cleaning to their repertoire.
Yes, no sooner had Le Parisien newspaper highlighted complaints by Pigalle residents about the state of their neighbourhood on the mornings after the epic Irish parties than an another video emerged, this time of green-shirted supporters helping to collect discarded cans and bottles.
So it’s not just the Irish pubs of Paris that cleaned up, after all. And France (some of it, at least) is impressed.
If Irish fans can keep this sort of thing going, not only could they retain their Europe’s Best Supporters title, a mass conferring of the Legion d’Honeur cannot be ruled out.