The current level of popularity enjoyed by the Irish soccer team was highlighted by a message that I received in the aftermath of their abject 4-1 surrender to Wales last month. It read: “WARNING: if you receive an e-mail with the subject line ‘Two free tickets for the next Republic of Ireland home game’ DON’T OPEN IT. It contains two free tickets for the next Republic of Ireland home game.”
Even allowing for the fact that nowadays the only thing capable of bringing the nation to a halt is a fresh batch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts being taken out of an oven in Blanchardstown, the reduction of the status of the Irish team to that of a punchline is a precipitous comedown for a side who not so long ago were the hottest ticket in town.
Wavering levels of enthusiasm from Irish supporters is an understandable reaction to a series of poor performances by our national team. However, one might have expected greater loyalty from a group of followers who were more than happy during the good times to enjoy the self-proclaimed title of the best fans in the world.
This apathy might explain why, 11 months on from our 5-1 World Cup playoff defeat to Denmark at Lansdowne Road, Ireland have only actually played one home match (against the USA in June). Suspicious supporters might be left thinking that even the FAI have lost confidence in the pulling-power of the national team, and would rather travel rather than risk the embarrassment of playing at a sparsely attended Aviva Stadium.
More worrying than the wavering enthusiasm of the supporters is that of the Irish players. Within a single generation we moved from Tony Cascarino digging up a fictional dead grandfather to enable him to qualify to play for Ireland to Stephen Ireland burying two live grandmothers to avoid playing for them.
Now it appears that we may have reached a new low with Declan Rice after three senior appearances for the Boys in Green, apparently keen to continue playing international football but only for a country much better at it than the Republic of Ireland. Rice's likely defection continues a worrying trend of gifted Irish-qualified young players choosing to play for another country. The list includes both Jack Grealish and the outstanding Ethan Ampadu who, despite only turning 18 last month, is a certain starter for Wales when they visit Dublin on Tuesday night.
The next player added to the list is likely to be Bayern Munich teenager Ryan Johansson, who, despite playing at Under-19 level for Ireland as recently as last month, seems likely to declare for Luxembourg.
So what can those of us who are prepared to turn up to watch Ireland play Denmark on Saturday expect?
We may struggle to get individual players to turn up but the last few weeks have been even more eventful for Denmark, who have struggled to convince any of their players to report for duty. For their game against Slovakia last month the entire Danish team went on strike in a row over the image rights of players. This was a huge reality check for a country whose previous match in July was a nerve-shredding defeat on penalties to Croatia, which cost Denmark a first World Cup quarter-final appearance in two decades.
The strike created a huge difficulty for the Danish Football Association (DBU) as 12 months ago its woman’s team boycotted a World Cup qualifier with Sweden, leading to a 3-0 concession of the match and a fine. However, these sanctions came with a warning to the DBU that if it cancelled another match in the next four years it would be barred from Uefa tournaments, including Euro 2020.
Any such expulsion would have been an absolute disaster for Denmark who are co-hosting the tournament along with 11 other countries, including Ireland (both Copenhagen and Dublin are venues for three group games and a round of 16 tie). To avoid this Denmark chose to field an amateur side entirely filled by debutantes who were left in the unusual position of simultaneously winning both their first and last international caps. The ragtag team was captained by a salesman and included students, a YouTube freestyle footballer and a number of futsal players so lacking in star quality that ticket prices for the match were immediately reduced by the Slovakian FA from €26 to €1.
Former Arsenal midfielder John Jensen was placed in temporary charge of the national side for the match, but his preparations were somewhat undermined by the fact that he only met his players for the first time ever on the journey to Slovakia.
Unsurprisingly Denmark lost the game 3-0, but even this did little to dent Jensen's enthusiasm, who described the match as being the "best defeat of career" and labelled his players as "heroes". The only sour note was struck by Slovakia coach Jan Kozak, who asked "What's the point of travelling here with a team like that?"
Mind you, even when the Danish players do turn up there is no guarantee that they won't clock off early. When Ireland played Denmark in a World Cup qualifier in November 1985 the absence of floodlights at the old Lansdowne Road necessitated an afternoon kick-off. In a pre-arranged move Soren Lerby was substituted early in the second half to enable him to fly by private jet from Dublin Airport to Bochum, where he turned out for his club Bayern Munich in a German cup tie that same evening. As things transpired Lerby was not missed as Denmark ran out easy 4-1 victors. The events of last month continued a fine tradition of amateur football in Denmark, two early stars of which were brothers Niels and Harald Bohr. Although a very promising goalkeeper with the appropriately named Academic Club, Niels never played for the national team in part because in one match against a German side he failed to stop a long distance shot as the physicist was leaning against a goalpost pondering a mathematical problem that he found much more interesting than the game he was playing in.
Mind you, Bohr managed to fill this gap in his CV by winning the Nobel Prize for physics, founding Cern and having an element in the periodic table named after him (Bohrium).
Younger brother Harald was a mathematician of such eminence that he had a theorem named after him. Harald did play for Denmark, but missed one match as he was busy helping his brother defend his doctoral thesis.
Harald’s greatest hour was participating in London Olympics in 1908, in which he won a silver medal. The Danish side playing their first ever official international match, beat France B 9-0, and followed this up with a 17-1 victory over the France first team before losing 2-0 to hosts Great Britain in the final.
These exploits made Harald so famous, that when it was his turn to defend his own doctoral thesis the audience included more football fans than academics. Overall the chaotic events of last month are unlikely to adversely affect Danish chances of victory in Dublin. After all, Denmark’s greatest ever sporting achievement was winning Euro 92, a competition that they didn’t even qualify for.
Earlier that same month the Danish people shocked the continent by rejecting the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. At the next European Council meeting foreign minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen turned up for an expected dressing down wearing a Danish football scarf and simply advised “if you can’t join them, beat them”.
James McDermott is a law lecturer in UCD and an ardent soccer fan