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Local Irish still lament France loss

A sign at the international airport in Dublin, Ireland, welcomes visitors to the Emerald Isle.

“Welcome to Ireland,” the sign reads, “unless you’re called Thierry.”

In a country where soccer fuels the sports economy and no event matches the World Cup in its grandeur, the Irish were a hand’s length — the hand of French striker Thierry Henry, that is — from qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Nearly 5,000 miles away, Las Vegas’ Irish community went through a roller coaster of emotions as Les Bleus eliminated the homeland’s side from qualifying. France, which drew 0-0 with Uruguay on the tournament’s opening day, takes on Mexico at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in Polokwana, South Africa, in the second wave of its Group A campaign.

“A World Cup comes around every four years, and to get into it is a major thing for a small country,” said Bill O’Gorman, a native of Tipperary, Ireland, who has spent the past 31 years in the Las Vegas Valley. “The citizens are absolutely delighted. The whole country grinds to a standstill when they’re playing. Pubs are packed; they’re all there drinking a beer and watching a game. And it broke the hearts of a lot of the Irish nation that we didn’t get in there.”

France took a 1-0 lead into the second leg of its qualifier against the Republic of Ireland on Nov. 19. But team captain Robbie Keane’s 32nd-minute blast tied the match on aggregate goals and breathed new life into the packed pubs around the world.

Until French star Henry, attempting to qualify for his fourth World Cup finals appearance, snatched the win from the Irish in extra time. Henry palmed the ball, smashed it to the ground and coolly dished out a pass to teammate William Gallas, who slotted the ball home past Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given to send the Boys in Green home early.

“The handball broke a lot of Irish hearts that day,” O’Gorman said. “I saw grown men cry. We were really hoping it would go down to a penalty shootout.”

Brokenhearted and downtrodden, the Irish were forced to play spectators for the second consecutive World Cup.

“They all want France to lose,” said Brian McMullan, a 13-year valley resident who owns McMullan’s Irish Pub. “I haven’t met anyone who wants France to win. No self-respecting Irishman seems to want France to get any further (than the group stage).”

With their national team sidelined from South Africa, many Irishmen have taken what they consider drastic measures to ensure France bows out early.

“I know two Irish friends of mine, who aren’t supporters of England, and they say if England runs into France, they will wear an England shirt on that day,” O’Gorman said.

McMullan’s Irish Pub is a popular watering hole for the Irish in Las Vegas but also has hosted fans from other countries. With no rooting interest in the second straight World Cup, supporters of the Boys in Green have to find their own.

“We hope to see (France) get walloped,” O’Gorman said. “The passion for the game is something unreal.”

Contact reporter Sean Walker at swalker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0430.

 

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