The way my companions on the package tour put it—"The lads are playing a friendly"—makes the game seem like a trifle. I'll soon learn better. I'll soon learn that there's nothing trifling about any occasion on which Ireland's national soccer team takes the pitch for the Auld Sod.
To see the lads win, that's why we've flown to Amsterdam, checked into a hotel, gotten well lathered at the Irish pubs off Dam Square and boarded the bus out to Tilburg for the match. A victory over an international power like the Netherlands would be grand just now, only two months before manager Jack Charlton and the team go to the States for the World Cup. To my busmates it matters not a whit that only seven of the team's 22 players are Irish-born. That Charlton is an English Protestant matters even less; Jack guided the lads to the World Cup quarterfinals in Italy four years ago, and for that alone he could stand for president of Ireland and win.
The Irish are a people scattered about the globe, and there's no more appropriate way to honor that emigrant tradition than to assemble a raft of them and vouchsafe their fortunes to a manager who hasn't once lost to his fellow countrymen at this game that the British, smug eejits that they are, think they own. So we motor along, singing our songs and slagging our mates, the bus a rolling madhouse of flags and scarves and jackets, green and white and orange. On board we've had to ask Herr Heineken to do the work usually left to Messrs. Smithwick and Harp and Guinness, but he seems up to the task. We help ourselves to a few bevvies, a couple o' jars, some gargle, a bit o' hooch—like Eskimo words for snow, these are.
This tour has attracted two types of fans. There are those who can't afford the trip to the States, so an overnight to a "friendly" exhibition game has to do. The others, prosperous enough to follow the team wherever it goes, are old hands who say the revel level on this trip is woefully below par—a protestation I find hard to believe.
Counting himself among the first species is a fellow named Wally. Or so I gather; he will never be sober enough to explain fully one way or another. Several times I save Wally from incurring huge orthodontic bills when the bus makes sudden stops, which would have sent him tumbling teeth-first into the stairwell had I not been there to break his fall.
Among the second species are John and Jimmy, owners of Dublin grocery stores within a few blocks of each other. In Ireland, if you run rival shops, you don't plot ways to cut into each other's market share. You follow the lads together. John and Jimmy have been to all the garden spots during the Republic's 18-month campaign to qualify for this World Cup: Denmark, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia. In Riga all the hotels were booked, so some of John and Jimmy's traveling companions bunked down in a sanatorium. They impart this fact with no evident sense of irony.
Suddenly there's a guttural report from several rows to the front. With a lurch of his head a member of our party has deposited his day's libations in one of the plastic bags hung with forethought on each armrest.
Soon a chorus of "Stop the bus, we have to wee wee!" comes from the back, sung to the tune of the refrain "Glory, glory, hallelujah." The driver obliges our clamor for a place where the wrath of hops might be stored, and there follows a remarkable sight: a dozen of us, lined up by the side of the road, further lowering the lowlands in full view of a quarter mile's worth of Dutch drivers stuck in traffic.
Once we've reboarded the bus, mercy intervenes. The Tilburg stadium appears before we can favor one another with some as-yet-unperformed bodily function.
Stop the bus, we have to nee wee: Is this the battle hymn of the Republic of Ireland? Is this what the World Cup will deliver to the U.S. over the next month—this, multiplied by 23, the number of foreign countries sending followers?