Giuseppe, the happy-go-lucky waiter at a restaurant in New York’s Little Italy, favourite watering hole of the Irish media during World Cup, USA, 1994, was an avid Azzurri fan.
He could reel off the names of Italian teams down the ages and his morning paper was an airmail copy of the newspaper La Gazzetta delo Sport.
June 17, eve of the Italy-Republic of Ireland World Cup qualifier at the Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey. “We are going to win,” taunted Giuseppe as he took our orders. “All of Italy will be there — everybody wants to go to the match. Italia, Italia.”
How wrong he was on each count: The Irish triumphed 1-0 with an opportunist goal from Aston Villa midfielder Ray Houghton, a Glaswegian with an unmistakable Scottish accent, who qualified for the Republic through his Donegal- born father, and the massive stadium was not a sea of blue but a huge green shamrock. Where were all the local Italians and, believe me, they are in abundance in New York and New Jersey? Or the thousands who had travelled on packages from the homeland for the tournament. “It resembles a suburb of Dublin,” commented my colleague John Laverty as we walked to the entrances.
A home fixture for Italy? Not on your life. It was more like Lansdowne Road or Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
With typical ingenuity and pre-planning the Irish fans, a most companionable bunch who enjoy life to the full, had obtained the Italian tickets via US-based friends and relatives who had simply applied for them. Under no circumstances would they miss out being part of Jack Charlton’s Army to cheer on a squad which had hit the international scene with seismic force in the late Eighties and Nineties.
It was joy unlimited for them when Houghton struck that killer blow after only 10 minutes. Sheffield Wednesday midfielder John Sheridan floated a cross towards the box; Italian centre-half Alessandro Costacurta got a slight touch but the ball dropped for Houghton who chipped it left-footed over the head of the keeper Gianluca Pagliuca. The stunned Italians, who eventually reached the final at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena but were defeated by Brazil on penalties after a scoreless draw, never really threatened in the heat and humidity which drained players and spectators alike.
Giants Stadium, home of the New York Jets and the Giants gridiron football team, has been demolished and a new one, Meadowlands, built on a nearby site.
The old stadium may have gone but the memory of Houghton’s goal will remain forever with the thousands of fans who made it such a great day for the Irish in New York.
St Patrick’s Day in June.