To Irish Fans, Victory Was Super Bowl, World Series

As green-wigged fans washed over New York, the World Cup visitors wondered: Who cares about the Rangers or Knicks?

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ALMOST lost among the Knicks' play for a National Basketball Association championship, the Rangers' parade down Broadway with their newly won Stanley Cup, and the ongoing O.J. Simpson spectacle, the world's most-watched sporting event made its New York debut over the weekend.

And what a beauty of a game between Ireland and Italy!

If the rest of the month-long World Cup soccer tournament comes close to matching the intensity and excitement of Ireland's 1-0 triumph, the sport the rest of the world goes crazy over may finally catch on in the United States.

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``This is fantastic! It's unbelievable! The best we were hoping for was a draw,'' says Dublin resident Tim McGuire about the defeat of the favored Italian team. ``This is a great day for Ireland.''

McGuire was among the legions of Irish fans who made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean for the game. Throughout the game they chanted and cheered, making Giants Stadium - repaved with turf for Cup games - rattle and hum.

``It's a bit surprising to me,'' McGuire said. ``Everyone said this game would be like a home game for the Italians, being that it's being played in New York, and a lot of Italians are living here. But look at it!'' The sold-out 76,000-seat stadium in E. Rutherford, N.J., was a sea of green.

The preponderance of Irish fans in the stands was only the first of several startling developments for McGuire and his compatriots. By far the biggest surprise came 12 minutes into the game, when Irish striker (forward) Ray Houghton played a bouncing ball off his chest, then vollied it over an out-of-position Italian goalkeeper and into the top of the net for the first - and only - score of the game.

The fans' stunned silence lasted only a split second before they let loose a thunderous roar. It was the kind of wild cheering Americans normally would hear only if a running-back broke through a solid defensive line for a game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, or a hitter smacked a home run to win the final World Series game. Simply put, it was sweet delirium.

``You'll never beat the Irish,'' the fans chanted over and over again. ``Are you watching, England?'' others yelled.

Playing in sweltering heat, the favored Italian team - featuring Roberto Baggio, the European Player of the Year in 1993 - came right back at the veteran Irish team after the Houghton goal. The game's pace kept the fans, both Irish and Italian, on the edge of their seats, right up until the final whistle.

For many Irish fans, however, the 1-0 win was just icing on the cake. Some considered their biggest triumph just getting a ticket to the game.

The game had been dubbed ``The Immigrant Bowl'' on account of the large Irish and Italian communities in the New York metropolitan area, meaning tickets were a rare commodity. In the days leading up to the game, scalpers advertising in New York newspapers wanted $300 to $400 for a seat.

At the stadium on Saturday, there were plenty of buyers but few sellers. The asking price was $200 for a $50 seat.

``Getting a ticket took a lot of wheelin' and dealin','' says Michael Murphy, an Irish citizen who now lives in Calgary, Alberta. ``A friend told me about his friend, who gave me a tip. A couple of phone calls later, I had a ticket for $175.''

Murphy said he and seven friends from Ireland and Boston were camping out in a converted schoolbus in Yonkers, N.Y. He added that he had a plane ticket back to Calgary on Sunday. But given Ireland's stunning victory, he might postpone the flight to join his buddies on a road trip to Orlando, Fla., where Ireland plays its next game against Mexico on Friday.

``I don't think my friends are going to let me leave,'' Murphy says, a grin spreading across his face.

When the US was chosen to host the World Cup, the decision was derided by some soccer aficionados, who thought a nation that cared more about the sport should host the prestigious quadrennial tournament.

The criticism is somewhat justified. The fans from abroad find the scant local attention being paid to the World Cup somewhat puzzling. New York's fans seem preoccupied with their local teams' championship fights.

``It's very strange. People are looking at us strangely. They ask us where we're from, and what we're doing in the United States,'' says Seamus Nolan, who was among the Irish fans.

But many Irish fans were nonetheless impressed with the US's ability to organize a big event.

``You have 75,000 people in this stadium without any problems,'' says McGuire, the Dublin resident. ``Things would never run so smoothly back in Ireland - or anywhere else.''

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