In the summer of 1972 the Republic of Ireland soccer team was invited to play in a friendly tournament in Brazil to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that country’s independence. The Republic had been on a terrible run, which had reached its nadir the previous year with a 6–0 thrashing by Austria on Sunday 10 October. With the usual round of league matches the day before, English clubs had refused to release their Irish players, and a largely amateur League of Ireland selection was predictably hammered. Since the tournament in Brazil was out of season, new manager Liam Tuohy had no such selection problems and he guided the Republic to their first wins in five years by beating Iran and Ecuador. Defeats against Chile and Portugal, however, meant that the team bowed out of the tournament. But a more sensational ‘result’ was about to transpire off the pitch. While the rest of the Irish party flew home, tour organiser Louis Kilcoyne got wind of Brazil’s plan to tour Europe the following summer.
There were two reasons for this European tour. First, Brazil needed to acclimatise in preparation for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The last time they had played a World Cup in Europe—England in 1966—they had experienced some difficulty in adapting to the greater physicality of the European game and felt aggrieved that they had literally been ‘kicked out of the tournament’. The second reason was to enable the head of the Brazilian FA, João Havelange, to solicit votes in his campaign to replace long-standing FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous, due to retire in 1974.
Having camped outside Havelange’s office for half a day, Kilcoyne eventually secured a meeting. Moreover, he had something to bargain with. Under instructions from the FAI, Kilcoyne promised Havelange Ireland’s vote in the FIFA presidential elections in return for Ireland’s being added to Brazil’s eight-match European tour in a charity friendly (Kilcoyne was involved in the Irish Cancer Society at the time). It didn’t take long for the pair to strike a deal. On the long flight home, Kilcoyne’s self-satisfaction must have been tempered by the anxiety that he had over-played his hand: he had promised Havelange a game against an All-Ireland XI!
The political context could not have been worse: 1972 was the most violent year in the ongoing Northern Ireland conflict—nearly 500 people lost their lives. It was the year of Bloody Sunday in Derry and Bloody Friday in Belfast. In March Stormont was prorogued and direct rule was imposed from London. In the South, anti-British sentiment spilled onto the streets and the British Embassy was burned down. Ireland was on the brink of civil war. Political violence permeated all aspects of society, soccer included. That year Derry City went the way of Belfast Celtic before it, when the threat of sectarian violence forced the predominantly Catholic/nationalist-supported club out of the Irish League. Northern Ireland’s Irish Football Association (IFA) insisted that the club’s ‘home’ games be played in Coleraine, 30 miles away. It was for security reasons also that Northern Ireland’s ‘home’ internationals had to be played in various venues in Britain and not in Belfast’s Windsor Park.
As the original governing body (founded in 1880), from which the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) had seceded (in 1921, because of a perceived Belfast/Northern bias), the IFA reacted coolly to the idea of an all-Ireland team. Moreover, its president, Harry Cavan, was also a FIFA vice-president, and he used all of his considerable influence to have the game called off. Kilcoyne, however, was one step ahead. The game was billed as Brazil v. a ‘Shamrock Rovers XI’, as Kilcoyne had recently purchased Shamrock Rovers; this match was allowed under FIFA international friendly by-laws. The game was on. Even the political situation had improved. On 28 June 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly elections returned a 2:1 majority in favour of a power-sharing agreement, the details of which were negotiated later that year at Sunningdale.
Meanwhile, Kilcoyne delegated the task of assembling a team to his brother-in-law, John Giles. With his stature as the Republic’s team captain and the prospect of playing the reigning world champions, Giles had little problem in recruiting Southern players. Part one of the plan was coming together. For Northern Ireland players Giles enlisted the help of Northern Ireland’s captain, Derek Dougan, who was particularly well connected as the very active head of the Players’ Football Association (PFA). Dougan was excited by the prospect of a match against the best team in the world and the charitable nature of the game: ‘If you can get Brazil, you can rest assured I will bring six players and myself’. Another innovation was securing Lansdowne Road from the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). The Republic’s internationals were usually played at Dalymount Park. ‘It was quite a novelty to be playing at Lansdowne in those days’, recalls defender Paddy Mulligan.
Coached by the Republic’s manager, Liam Touhy, the new teammates met up in Dublin and got ready to take on the world champions. ‘We were all good players and could pass the ball. That meant we gelled together very quickly. We all knew we had a job to do against Brazil, who were the Harlem Globetrotters of the time’, recalls winger Bryan Hamilton. The match would take place almost two months after the end of the season and all the players battled off-season temptation to remain in shape. ‘It was a strong selection and it was so flattering to be asked to be part of it’, recalls midfielder Mick Martin.
The Brazilians had been stung by media reports of boozy antics on their tour. They fielded their strongest team. With a point to prove, they raced into a 4–1 half-time lead with goals from Valdomiro and a brace from Paulo César Lima, after Mick Martin had equalised an early Jairzinho goal. The all-Ireland team rallied in the second half, with goals from Derek Dougan and Terry Conroy and a late penalty save from Pat Jennings, and the final result was a 4–3 victory for the visitors. A group of players thrown together at the last minute in the off-season became the first team to score three goals against Brazil in eight years. In the intervening 35 years both Northern Ireland and the Republic have gone on to achieve glory at World Cup finals, but the all-Ireland experiment has never been repeated.
Shane Tobin is a Dublin-based filmmaker. His documentary about the match, United we stand, is currently in pre-production.