BY PAUL BREEN
I’m a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.
[from “Canis Major,” Robert Frost, 1928]
Right now, in a time and a tournament that was supposed to be mundane and meaningless, we are seeing the rising, and hearing the growing bark of the underdog. That’s if we dare to even use the word for it started out in life referring to the dog that was beaten in a fight, the poor loser with nothing at all gallant in his bloody plight. The times they are a changin’ though, to quote another American poet as great as Robert Frost in his own particular way.
The road to France has awakened something beautiful in Europe, and as far as I know it is Michel Platini we have to think for this. In the face of much criticism he was a passionate advocate of expanding the European Championship right at a time when it had struck its zenith, with a couple of fantastic, evenly balanced 16 team tournaments. Few teams at the last competition seemed out of their depth, as the finest talents in Europe paraded their stuff on the split stages of Poland and Ukraine in a series of engrossing contests that ended with the Spanish making yet more history.
Then came the announcement that there was to be an extension of the competition to 24 teams, as had happened in the glorious summer of España 82, unforgotten in the annals of Irish history. That was the year of the night when there was only one Gerry with a moustache (though no beard) associated with Northern Ireland, and everyone Catholic or Protestant cheered at the sight of a lethal shot striking the target. Northern Ireland defeated their Spanish hosts 1-0 with a Gerry Armstrong goal in probably the finest moment of their existence, before or after.
Maybe until now that is, and Platini’s suggestion to expand the European tournament the very same as the World Cup was once expanded, against prevailing wisdom of the time.
Something about that decision too echoes FIFA’s brave and ground breaking decision to hold the 2002 World Cup in the heat of an Asian summer, sharing the honours between Korea and Japan.
Just as in that summer of opening up the East to the West, the underdogs are rising up and defying all expectations. Iceland has qualified for their first major tournament. Austria has shown attacking form not seen since the early 1980s. Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses of past and recent times have fallen by the wayside – none more so than Greece and Holland. The fall of Greece has been the most spectacular, but the decline of the Dutch far more startling, considering that they reached the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That was a whole three stages further than England managed in their group of death alongside Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, the surprise packages of that tournament.
Memories of that tournament must seem faraway for England now too, fading into the flesh of time like Luis Suarez’ toothmarks, and the last throes of a golden generation that never quite shone as expected. With a new team forming and seven wins out of seven, things are looking good for the English.
Despite this, they have found themselves overshadowed by the achievements of their neighbours – Northern Ireland and Wales. Both of these teams have been buoyed by the freedom that has come with the promise of a 24-nation competition in 2016. This new format, despite criticisms from some quarters, has been good for the European game, giving confidence to those sides who have traditionally missed out on the top one or two places in qualifying groups, and then given up the ghost half way through when there’s no difference in third or fourth spot.
Suddenly these teams have found new belief, confidence brought about by possibilities and promises, where every single point has meaning, and potential for importance. Inspired by these opportunities, they have then pushed on beyond the boundaries and heightened the bar for themselves. They’ve found renewed pride and in Northern Ireland’s case have given supporters a new sense of pride too in the place that they come from.
Wales, at the start of the competition, might have fancied themselves for first or second place in their group on the basis of recent tournament performances, but Northern Ireland would have been more than happy with third place. Considering how well they’ve done so far, they’re entitled to feel confident about winning the group outright in the coming months. Powered by the goals of Kyle Lafferty, just as Wales have been driven on by the performances of Gareth Bale, this Northern Irish team has become hard to beat, and convincing to watch on the pitch.
Like the Republic of Ireland in the days of Jack Charlton, there’s a confidence and a passion in the way they’re playing for each other and for the green jersey. Added to this, they’re no longer cast in the stigma of a team that you don’t play for, as an adult, if you want to compete in major tournaments and make a name for yourself.
The surest sign that times have changed comes with the news that Michael O’Neill is actively trying to persuade Connor Wickham, England U-21 striker, to join the Northern Ireland set up as a replacement for and back up to Kyle Lafferty.
The very act of trying this and hopefully achieving it goes a long way to reversing the thorny issue of so many young Catholic players going off to play for the Republic in recent years. Though these departures are more often for cultural reasons than a chase for honours, it is good for all sides that the arguments about Northern Ireland having less potential for success are put to bed once and for all.
What this tournament has done is to give a window of opportunity to players such as Kyle Lafferty and Ashley Williams, as the lynchpin of the Welsh defence, a chance to shine on the international stage.
We can only thank Platini and UEFA for that.
Let’s just hope the rise of the underdog doesn’t stop at the borders of France, which of course are presently in the news for a whole different set of reasons. It would be fantastic to see Northern Ireland, the Republic, Iceland, and Wales all head to the finals – and maybe even the likes of Albania too – and give a really good account of themselves, and their countries.
You see, by doing this they are proving a point that goes beyond football, and one that we should all be happy, even ecstatic about. They’re enacting a reality that goes far beyond the football field and has an important message for us all.
It’s the fact that if you create the right circumstances, the underdog can flourish. All too often the system is stacked in favour of the heavyweights and the traditional powerhouses with little opportunity for anyone to break the status quo. You just have to look back to 2002 when there was a similar rise of the underdog in the Asian-hosted World Cup to see how many pundits reacted to that – shock and awe that the smaller nations had risen up and displaced the mighty, and repeated assurances that it was nothing more than a pure fluke to be rectified next time around.
Hopefully we’ll see an awful lot more of that next summer. Roll on the Iceland versus Albania quarter final, and Northern Ireland versus Wales, while the Republic play Romania in the sequel to the 1990 World Cup game, and (okay, I have to include them) England play Germany, in the showdown of the last ‘big’ names left in Euro 2016, the tournament where the underdogs bit back in style.
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men available in paperback, and also on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B00G8OBOKW/
FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen