giants stadium

Republic of Ireland has already met Italy three times at a major tournaments and the nations are preparing to meet again at Euro 2016. During the 1994 World Cup the Irish met Italy in Giants Stadium, New York in one of the most iconic matches in history.

 The Panenka looks back at that afternoon under searing heat in New Jersey where the Irish invaded. 

In the summer of 1994, 75,000 people crammed into the Giants baseball stadium to witness the one of the biggest comings together of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 20th century.

On a Sunday (of all the days of the week, it had to be a Sunday) on June 19 Republic of Ireland defeated Italy by a goal to nil to send the millions of Irish immigrants living in the Big Apple, as well as the millions living at home, into delirium.

It was perhaps fate that the two nations were drawn together in the same group for the tournament held in the United States. That destiny was confirmed when was announced that they would meet in New York.

The fixture on American soil is steeped with history that evokes memories of the millions of European immigrants who populated the U.S. East coast throughout the 19th and early-20th century.

New York, a cosmopolitan metropolis, to this day, can boast the largest number of both Irish and Italian immigrants outside of their respective countries. As a result he 1994 World Cup match effectively became a local derby.

Due to famine, by 1854 it is estimated that around two million Irish landed in the US with little more than the clothes they stood in. As the Irish multiplied so did their influence on New York.

Within the city it obvious that culture from the Emerald Isle is deeply rooted in the city. Irish flags adorn nearly every bar and Irish heritage hovers over both the police and fire departments as well as the Catholic church.

On the other side of the derby, Italians have also had their part to play in creating the identity of New York. Immigrants from Italy spread to the US in similar numbers where it is estimated that 5.3 million people flocked to the United States between 1820 and 1978.

The majority of Italian immigrants hailed from the poorer parts of southern Italy and Sicily. Many congregated in the East Harlem neighborhood that respectfully became know as “Little Italy.” To this day, Italians are the most represented ethnic group in New York.

Italy met Republic of Ireland at the 1990 World Cup held on Italian soil four years previously where the match in Rome ended 1-0 to the Azzurri. A 37th minute strike from golden boot winner Salvatore Schillaci settled the score. This time, without the traditional kind of home advantage of the Stadio Olimpico, it would be different.

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Paul McGrath was instrumental in Republic of Ireland’s victory in stifling former-World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio. 

As the stadium filled so did expectations. Italy was hotly tipped favorites and the Irish were hugely un-fancied. Patrick Barlclay for The Observer recalls the scenes before kick off.

“The packed Giants stadium was a fine sight, and overwhelmingly friendly to the Irish, whose supporters’ tricolors were draped all the way round the balconies on each level. When these countries last clashed in the World Cup, it was in Rome four years ago, but now the balance of fervor had radically shifted. Jack’s lads must have felt like representatives of the host nation.”

Witnessing the scenes was South African and neutral Andre Luck. He recalled what he saw that day in New Jersey as well as in the days building up to the game to The Panenka.

The Irish arrived in planes, trains and automobiles. Unfeasible amounts of Guinness and champagne swilled around the fans alighting from stretch limos as New York’s Manhattan became shrouded in emerald.

“I heard that the Irish Prime Minister had pleaded with the fans not to remortgage their homes to finance the travel expenses of the trip to the U.S. It looked like his plea hadn’t worked though, it seemed that 95 percent of the stadium was filled with Irish. There was pandemonium when Houghton scored. Incredible decibels.”

Republic of Ireland took the lead in the 11th minute through Ray Houghton and the Irish held on for dear life for the remainder of the game. Roberto Baggio pulled the stings for Italy but the Azzurri couldn’t find a way through thanks to dogged and determined defending by the boys in green, particularly from Paul MaGrath.

“The match itself was a classic,” wrote The Guardian’s Danny Kelly.

“In the hundred-degree heat, Paul McGrath, dodgy knees and all, gave the grittiest defensive performance I’ve ever witnessed. At the other end of the pitch, legendary defenders Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini must have looked on in awe.

“Ray Houghton scored the winner. After only 11 minutes the Aston Villa midfielder took advantage of a weak header, scurried to the edge of the Italian box, then slightly shinned a shot. The ball made a sickly, leisurely, loop over the bewildered goalkeeper Pagliuca before flopping into the net.”

The most common term used to describe the atmosphere in the Giants Stadium on that June afternoon is “pandemonium.” After the final whistle with the win safe and secure, the majority of the Irish stayed behind to applaud their heroes off the field to the sound of the 75,000 strong crowd singing Ireland’s National anthem.

In New York, the Bronx Irish rejoiced with an “impromptu parade” according to one witness. “Cheering and marching up McLean Avenue took place. The likes of which had not been seen before nor since in that part of the Bronx, save for St. Patrick’s Day,” said Bronx Irish American Blog Spot.

Both Ireland and Italy escaped the group stages. Italy was of course defeated in the final on penalties to winners Brazil. Republic of Ireland on the other hand went out in the next round to Holland. Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk scored a goal each in the first half in Orlando.

Antonio Conte’s Italy will play Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland at Euro 2016 on June 17 in Toulouse.