08 October 2011

The Luck of the Irish

Really, we were the lucky ones. Andorra played the Republic of Ireland in a sold out match on Friday and we happened to be camping right above the stadium. When we pulled up to pitch in the afternoon, just about every police officer in Andorra was surrounding the grounds. "We're just camping," we explained to the first row. "Here for camping!" to the second. "We're in a tent up there," we told them when we came back through later. "Yes, yes, camping," they all said, pointing us through on our final trip. We couldn't have been more a part of the action.
Except, of course, if we were Irish. The first green shirts were spotted in town that morning. We thought it was amazing that those guys traveled all the way here for the game. Little did we know that busloads would arrive and congregate outside the stadium for hours before the game. It was a big match for them, bigger than for Andorra. Both teams are in Group B of the UEFA Euro 2012 qualifiers - and Ireland is just a win or two away from securing their spot. Andorra, on the hand, is an underdog, as the friendly old man who runs our campsite explained with a hand up near his forehead for Ireland and a hand down near his knees for Andorra.
Beers were carried from the campsite bar over across the street, where the Irish supporters had hung up flags and a banner that read "YES WE CAN!" The game didn't start until 9:30, but the singing started around seven. When it rained for a little while, the singing got louder. Close to game time, the Andorran supporters (who we'd assumed were just having an 'early' dinner) had still not arrived in any great number. We were invited down to join Team Ireland, but would have felt a little bit like traitors. Plus, we had a paella to make.
When the rain stopped at the start of the match, this rainbow crossed the sky. Dare I say there was a pot of gold underneath. Two quick goals put the Irish up 2-0 in the first twenty minutes of the game - a fact we surmised by the roar of the crowd in the distance. The tiny stadium's stands were almost completely green. Just to give you a little perspective: The other Group B stadiums (Armenia, Slovakia, Russia, Macedonia and Ireland) hold an average of 31,000 people. Ireland's is the biggest of the bunch, with 50,411 seats. The Estadi Comunal in Andorra la Vella holds 500. You could say that enthusiasm seemed to be relative.
The campsite owner had introduced us to this police officer earlier in the night and we'd been given permission to come over and watch. At that hour, before the game had started, a specific spot was pointed out for us beneath the glow of the stadium light - presumably, so no one could see us there from below. By the time we arrived later, with the match in progress and the Andorrans struggling, no one seemed to care that we were there. Other campers were huddled around with umbrellas and the police chatted casually to each other.
Andorra's more of a winter sports country - and roller hockey, interestingly. Their national soccer team is about as good as any country's would be working with such a small population. It doesn't mean they don't like the sport. We've seen pick-up games like this one a few times and heard rowdy matches going on at recess. It just means that most Andorrans were probably not heartbroken about the 2-0 loss to the Republic of Ireland. To be honest, we were a little relieved. I doubt we would have gotten much sleep had their been a huge upset. And it would have been a very sad, long bus ride home for a lot of fans.

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