On a day of a sudden-death playoff – amid high security – between Egypt and Algeria for Africa's last spot at the 2010 World Cup, the match between Ireland and France for one of Europe's last tickets to South Africa should be a reminder of the positive emotions and drama that the world's most popular sport can stir.
Paris's Stade de France promises to be rocking on Wednesday at kickoff (2:30 pm Eastern time) with about 60,000 supporters of Les Bleus and up to 15,000 traveling Irish fans.
Just as with an earlier Algeria-Egypt match, played Saturday, the stakes for today's match in Paris could not be higher, with the national prestige of participation in the cup balanced against four years of what-might-have-beens. But unlike that Egypt-Algeria match, which was played after Egyptian fans assaulted Algerian players before the game, security and soccer officials are hoping for the right kind of passion to be on display in Paris.
Bad feelings, maybe even a red card, on the pitch? More than possible. A verbal assault on the refs by the losing coach after the match? It would hardly be a World Cup qualifier without one. Violence between French and Irish fans? Much less likely.
Ireland's traveling supporters have one of the best reputations in the world, typically singing the opposing team's national anthem before the game
(here's footage of the 20,000 members of the Green Army gamely trying to sing along with La Marseillaise before their last World Cup qualifier in Paris in 2004). While France's domestic football competition has been marred by hooliganism, with supporters of big clubs like Marseilles and Paris St. Germain engaging in violence, the national team has been largely free of such violent "support."
Part of the attraction of this match is that it pits the ever game (but usually undermanned) Irish against a French team that dominated the world game for much of the last decade, winning the European cup and the 1998 World Cup, and losing the final of the 2006 World Cup after the infamous coupe de boule (headbutt) by France icon Zinedine Zidane. Since Zidane's retirement, France has faltered, and is currently faced with the until-recently unthinkable chance of not making it to South Africa next summer.
Ireland's wily veteran Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni will not have to work hard to motivate his men for tonight's match, but the odds are stacked against them.
Ireland lost the first game of this two-leg playoff at Croke Park in Dublin 1-0, and now must either win away in Paris by the same score to force overtime and a possible penalty shootout – or by two clear goals to automatically go through.