Just after 6pm last Tuesday night, I found myself leaning against a security barrier in the South Bronx, craning my neck to see if any buses were coming. I had spent the previous half an hour in the same spot in the hope that the two 13 year old boys in my care might catch a fleeting glimpse of the Spanish and Irish players as they were driven into Yankee Stadium. When the NYPD outriders finally appeared ahead of the Ireland convoy, the boys began jumping up and down, pointing their phones at the bus like tween girls at a One Direction concert.
That the windows of the Irish bus (and the Spanish one when it came) were tinted and they didn’t even see the shadow of a footballer mattered not a jot because this giddy ritual was all part of their trip to the Ireland-Spain pageant. My son Abe was born in Dublin but has grown up a soccer fanatic in New York. He has a framed Xavi poster on his bedroom wall, once wrote a letter to Iniesta for a Spanish class project (he never replied!), and, among his slightly schizophrenic shirt collection, there are England, France, Argentina, Portugal, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Cork City jerseys.
The poster child of soccer globalization was wearing the Irish Euro 2012 green number when we picked up his friend Jared earlier that afternoon. Three years ago, Jared had never watched a soccer match he wasn’t involved in. Tuesday, he got into the car, apologised for wearing a Barcelona training top rather than an Ireland jersey, and then started asking me to tell him stories about an old footballer whom he’d recently discovered, some guy by the name of George Best. “Apparently he was brilliant but he was a bit of a drunk,” said Jared.
These children are part of what I call “America’s Barcelona generation”. They have come of age in an era defined by Messi and co being available on television every week. They watch and devour everything to do with that team. As kids who’ve been doing the famous “rondo” as part of their own training rituals for years, they insisted on being in their seats early to watch the Spanish warm-up, to catch the full panoply of flicks and tricks on show.
One of them might have been wearing an Ireland shirt and his birth cert says Holles Street but that Ireland were providing the opposition was incidental. For these boys, Spain were the main attraction, and, judging by the sea of La Roja red, speckled with Madrid white and Barcelona’s red and blue, they were not alone in this. Yankee Stadium was no replay of Ireland outnumbering the Italians in Giants Stadium all those years ago.
Of course, the early attendance impressions may have been slightly skewed because during the first half hour, our view of Spain’s passing masterclass was repeatedly interrupted by Irish supporters straggling in.
“Why are the Irish fans all coming in late?” asked Jared.
“They were in the bar,” said Abe, before I could even try to put a spin on it.
And from the bedraggled, beery shape of some of them as they navigated the steps to the nosebleed seats (one beauty was wearing a shirt with the name Long-Cox and the number 69 on the back), the child was right.
If my lads came to see the Spanish greats do their thing, they also learned a whole lot more. They were so taken with the rather mundane renditions of “The Fields of Athenry” that they wanted to know more about the song. At half-time I ran through and explained the lyrics, and they looked at me and they looked at me.
“They sing songs about a famine (which is part of the New York state curriculum) to inspire the team?’ asked Abe.
All the stuff Irish adolescents might take for granted on a visit to the Aviva was thrilling and novel for these Long Island kids. From the Irishmen cavalierly jaywalking along Jerome Street to the line of green shirts urinating against a wall in the car-park to the foul-mouthed Brazilian in the Flamengo shirt, swearing uncontrollably at the Spanish players throughout, this was all part of the carnival they’d been desperate to see
For an expatriate father though there is always an added charge to going to see Ireland play, especially when you bring along one of your own children. I heard the babel of familiar accents, saw the kaleidoscope of county jerseys in our midst, and suddenly, for a moment, I was 3000 miles away. Then my son said something and I realised again how American his accent is, how American he is. And looking around the grandstand, I saw plenty of others in the same boat as me, forty-something exiles surrounded by New York children wearing forty shades of green for the night that was in it. Anything to please Dad.
There was just one crucial difference. I didn’t see any of the other Irish-American kids slapping their seats in frustration every time Spain came close to breaching the valiant Irish defence. None of them were on their feet, arms in the air celebrating when Soldado and Mata scored. But Abe was. Wearing that Ireland shirt gifted to him by his uncle Tom before the Euros, the Irish tracksuit top he got for Christmas tied around his waist, he reacted to the Spanish goals with the joy of somebody born and reared in Madrid. Shameless. No allegiance to the country of his birth at all.
On the way out, we stopped at a merchandising stall and Abe produced $20 he’d been carefully hiding away all day. From all the items available, so many scarves and hats where the tricolour loomed large, he bought a La Roja t-shirt with the Spanish crest on the front. By the time we’d left the stadium, he had pulled it over his head. A man-child between two countries. Or three. And counting.