Italia 90: Final penalty proves exiled Prince David a Goliath

June 26th, 1990: Kevin Myers describes the ecstasy of Ireland’s win over Romania

And so it came to pass, the worst of all finishes to a football match - a penalty shoot-out, a means of deciding a match which has all the pleasantness one associates with a public execution without any of the collusiveness.

Such a messy end does not always bring justice. It did yesterday.

A technically inferior team achieved a moral superiority over the Romanian challengers for a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. It was a reward for 120 minutes of physical valour in a stadium so hot and humid that It was more suited for thrashings with birch twigs and regular immersions In Ice-cold water than playing Ireland’s kind of football.

A match lasting the normal period in such conditions would have worn out the most gallant of teams, other that is, than this one.


There was supreme and elegant irony in the two heroes of this encounter. Packie Bonner, who has generally been so little tried in this World Cup that he brought a book to while away the hours between the sticks, and David O'Leary, still the fans' crown prince in exile, languishing on the substitutes' bench.

It was Packie who put down his book to face up to the five Romanian penalties and save the last, heart-stopping one. And it was David who, as late substitute, faced the horror of taking the last and vital penalty. He took it with princely elegance, and the roar that followed would have awoken the moon from its stony, distant slumbers.

The result was a triumph too for the Irish supporters, who sustained the team they have nearly bled for, and for which they have shouted themselves into a stupor. It is time the FAI came clean - it has a secret underground factory somewhere producing vocal chords which are issued to Irish fans freshly each day with the orange juice.

There Is no other explanation for the din the Irish were able to sustain, which caused seismographs in Alaska to do hand stands and signal a major catastrophe had occurred somewhere in the central Mediterranean.

In terms of footballing skill there was no comparison between the two teams. “Apart from McGrath, their worst player is better than the best Irish player,” said one Dutchman in the press box.

It might have been only a slight exaggeration. The Romanians’ ball-playing skills were as brilliant as the colours on their birds-of-paradise shirts, flashing and darting all over the place as if in some exotic aviary.

The major earner of hard currency for the Romanian exchequer is the export of footballers, and yesterday’s match was a sort of trade fair at which the finest footballers could display their skills to foreign buyers, who were certainly there in greater numbers than were Romanian supporters, who at the most accurate count totalled 14.

These qualities are exemplified by Mick McCarthy, not the greatest player in the world, but perhaps the bravest

And that is how the Romanians played, as if they were in competition with one another - glorious, splendid and sometimes exhilarating competition, but competition nonetheless.

Most eyes were on the Romanian striker Hagi, whose left foot should be examined by the Iraqis for strategic purposes. He was a delightful player, hard-working, full of skill, courage and commitment, and capable of quite dazzling ballplay.

A team manager should build his entire team around such a player, but instead the rest of the Romanians decided they would show the dozens of foreign agents looking for clients that they could out-Hagi Hagi.

They could not, and instead of dismantling a hard-working, decent but largely pedestrian team, they squandered chances, did not support one another, and generally behaved like schoolboys trying to attract teacher’s attention.

Better, more decent qualities than the ability to make the football do rather clever things may be found in the Irish team. Honesty, decency, the willingness to die for one another and the fans who support them are the most obvious of these.

These qualities are exemplified by Mick McCarthy, not the greatest player in the world, but perhaps the bravest, whose clenched fist of encouragement to his fellow players must have rallied many a heart which had thought it would simply wilt. By the end of the 120 minutes, which passed with the speed of the Middle Ages, he was clearly In agony, yet still urging his players on, his legs tottering as if a cement mixer was strapped to his back.

By that time, the superiority of the footballing skills of the Romanians was as evident as the unforgiving sun. But outshining them and the sun itself was the moral superiority of the Irish, who ran and ran and ran. The rival qualities produced a rough parity in goalmouth incidents and shots at goal, with Bonner putting down his book to bring off some fine saves.

The stadium went berserk, and all those fans whom the Irish have won over ... joined their newfound compatriots in a peaceful riotous ecstasy

The Romanians played the final half of extra time as if confident that their lazy skills would polish off the journeymen Irish in the penalty shoot-out without having to go to the tiresome bother of scoring a goal in natural time.

But such contests are as much about moral belief as they are about skill. The first four players of each side scored from their respective penalties. Poor Timofte, perhaps disturbed by the baying of the Irish fans, whose reservoirs of sportsmanship know limits after all, hit his shot poorly. It still needed a good goalkeeper to stop it, and Packie Bonner is that.

The tension in the stadium was gut-wrenching. The human frame is not designed for spacewalks, deep-sea diving and penalty shootouts, and perhaps many of those who remained in their seats long after David O’Leary scored that crucial goal had in fact died of terror during those moments.

But for the first time in this competition that I have seen, the neutrals in the press box rose and cheered the Irish goal. The stadium went berserk, and all those fans whom the Irish have won over - English and Scottish and Germans and Dutch and Scandinavians - joined their newfound compatriots in a peaceful riotous ecstasy, which will doubtless still be going on into the next century.

By late last night the pubs and bars and cafes of Genoa were awash with delirious fans, who will remember last night as long as they have breath in their bodies.