English Thuggery in Ireland

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nothing symbolized the emerging readiness of the Irish Republic for eventual Irish political unity and an immediate full role in Europe better than its recent prowess in soccer. Now, after experiencing English soccer hooliganism first-hand, some Irish people may have second thoughts.

In Ireland, soccer is a "foreign" game. The 19th century "rediscovery" of Gaelic football and hurling created "national" games that provide exuberant sport and the isolationist satisfaction that only the Irish play them. Thus, the Irish Republic has a weak soccer tradition while British Northern Ireland is a breeding ground of great players.

But in recent years, soccer has gained. To prepare for the 1994 World Cup, Ireland hired an English coach who combed the rosters of English clubs for players with an Irish grandparent. Ireland made it to the World Cup -- and fans loved it. The team is hardly Irish, but the tolerant do not care.

Any Irishman who rejects this as a bad idea got sustenance Wednesday at an exhibition in Dublin between England and Ireland. A few of England's violent, anti-social fans greeted the first Irish goal by raining chairs, bottles and home-made missiles on the field and at Irish fans, many of whom were hurt. The game was called by the Dutch referee.

Irish Prime Minister John Bruton complained of "appalling thuggery." British Prime Minister John Major apologized for his nation.

British soccer fans jammed a telephone hot line Friday to identify the hooligans to British police. They know the violence was a devastating setback for England's effort to climb back to respectability after English fan violence in Brussels in 1985 and Sweden in 1992. The English venue for the 1996 European Championship is jeopardized.

But the incident will be even worse for international understanding if it dissuades Irish athletes and fans from dipping their toes further into the game. The rise of Ireland and the rise of the United States are the best things to happen to world soccer in a long time. Both should be maintained.

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