Last March in Dublin, where the Republic beat Northern Ireland 3-0, fans taunted the North by chanting, "There's only one team in Ireland!" Yet only five of the Republic's 22 players were actually born on the Old Sod, and three of the others qualified in the most tenuous fashion the rules allow, by having an Irish grandparent. Before this Nov. 17th game, that gave rise to a charge from Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham, the son of a Belfast shipyard worker, that Charlton's players were "mercenaries." Even if he's a healer at heart—Bingham was the man who, in the '60s, assigned Best and Jennings to the same room—a Belfaster will have a knack for tit-for-tat. For tonight's match, Bingham's last as national coach, he has pledged revenge.
A half mile from the stadium a policeman stops you, demanding to see your ticket. A quarter mile from the grounds you see graffiti celebrating the UFF, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Protestant paramilitary group that strafed a pub in the predominantly Catholic village of Greysteel on Halloween night, the gunman yelling "Trick or treat!" before killing seven people. Once in the stadium, you notice the flags. From the official flagpoles flap the flags of Northern Ireland; of soccer's international governing body, FIFA; and of Turkey, for the referee, a doctor from Istanbul. Fans have hung the Union Jack everywhere, its red, white and blue at odds with the green and white uniforms of the two teams on the field. The tricolor of the Republic is nowhere to be seen.
This is by agreement between the northern Irish Football Association and the southern Football Association of Ireland (FAI), two organizations attuned to the finest distinctions of symbol and semantics. In Dublin, Northern Ireland had played without any of the usual trappings of nationhood. Here, before kickoff, a marching band plays God Save the Queen, and nothing else.
The man from Denmark Radio is sitting behind you, updating listeners in his homeland on the game. Denmark is playing Spain in Seville, and a broadcast of that game is being piped into his headset. In the complex permutations of World Cup qualifying, the Republic must either win tonight to qualify outright, or tie and hope that either Spain or Denmark loses so that Ireland would qualify on total goals scored. Both games start at the same time to forestall any chicanery.
Only 400 of the 10,500 tickets had been made available to the Republic, and the FAI, which had tried in vain to get the game's venue changed because of the recent violence, would not sell them. Indeed, many Catholics in the North refused to get tickets for family and friends because they feared what might happen to loved ones at the game. Those fans of the Republic who have shown up are mixed into the crowd at perilous random. You think you can tell who they are—knots of nervous dispassion here and there, people who look ready to burst from stifling cheers.
It is a rope-a-dope game of soccer, with opportunities bungled one after the other. But it is played with fury. You recall the fears of the Danish and the Spanish, that the Irish team with no chance to qualify would lay down for the Irish team whose hopes rode on this one game. From the stands you can see how unfounded those fears are. There are sectarian songs. There are monkey sounds directed at a Republic defender, Terry Phelan, who's part black. There are shouts of "Ya Fenian bastard!" at the doctor from Istanbul.
Twenty minutes into the second half the man from Denmark Radio tells you that Spain has scored to go up 1-0. This is a welcome development for the Republic. But soon the news from Seville becomes momentarily moot. A 34-year-old striker named Jimmy Quinn whacks a 20-yarder past the Republic's goalkeeper with his right foot. From the roar you think for an instant that Windsor Park is going to lift itself up and leave forever this misbegotten place, that the Republic won't be going to the U.S. after all.
But minutes later a player for the Republic finds the ball caroming toward him after a free kick. He traps it with his chest, lets it strike the ground just outside the penalty area, then volleys it into the Northern Ireland net with his left foot. You will learn later that this man suffered from a horrible toothache the day before but hadn't dared visit the dentist for fear he would be told he couldn't play. The man from Denmark Radio is telling thousands of Danes the name of the player—"Al-an Mc-Lough-lin"—who has probably just deprived Denmark of a trip to America.
Time runs out, and the Windsor Park game ends 1-1. On the field Charlton lets loose his anger over Bingham's pregame woofing, uttering an oath at Bingham he'll later apologize for. In the stands perhaps 20 people cluster around the man from Denmark Radio. Minutes pass before he gives the signal that Spain has held on, and word works its way down to the field that the Republic's quest to qualify, after 575 days and 42 games, has ended in success. The joy will come later, when thousands of fans meet the team at the Dublin airport; for now there is only relief.
The several thousand cops, soldiers and security men have also prevailed. There are no deaths, no shots, no explosions, and only a few arrests, all for drunkenness. The night's bloodshed is across the Irish Sea, where at the end of the Cup qualifier between Wales and Romania in Cardiff, two fans let loose a distress flare that strikes a 67-year-old man in the neck and kills him.