Green and White Army taking Europe by storm
June 21 2016

There is no doubt that football is not as gloriously unpredictable as it used to be. Only a select band of nations have what it takes to win the FIFA World Cup?, while top honours in the major leagues are regularly contested by the same small clutch of teams, and the FIFA Ballon d’Or has become the private property of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. So on the rare occasions that an underdog comes from nowhere to compete with the big boys, it is only natural that fans all over the world get behind them.

Unknown outside England not so very long ago, unfashionable Leicester City became the darlings of planet football when they trumped the usual contenders to win the English Premier League. Taking their cue from the Foxes, tiny Northern Ireland, who have never attracted much support beyond the country’s 1.8 million inhabitants, have become the talk of all Europe following their latest exploits at UEFA EURO 2016. Fifa 17 points

Asked to explain the reasons behind their sudden popularity, Northern Ireland front man Conor Washington said: “I think it’s our team spirit, the way we play and the passion of our fans.”

If you open a newspaper in host nation France these days or turn on a sports show, you are certain to see nothing but praise for Michael O’Neill’s team and their bubbly band of supporters. While the players have shone on the pitch, battling bravely in a narrow defeat to Poland before bouncing back to beat Ukraine in style, the fans have shown themselves to be every bit as fun-loving and vociferous in defeat as they are in victory, both inside and outside the stadiums.

“I don’t know why people love our team and our supporters so much,” said wide man Stuart Dallas, in conversation at the Stade de Lyon, the scene of his side’s 2-0 defeat of Ukraine. “They’ve come here with nothing else in mind but having a good time and supporting their team. They never bother anyone. They’re our 12th man and we owe our great performance tonight to them.”

Something out of the ordinary
Northern Ireland’s timely win was not so much a great performance as an epic achievement. They had already moved mountains in qualifying for the European finals for the first time in their history, and did so again to see off the Ukrainians for a maiden tournament win that puts them within sight of the last 16.

“Everyone wants to see us do well, and we don’t want to let anyone down,” said the Leeds United forward, who started against Ukraine after coming on as a substitute against the Poles. “What makes us different to other teams? When people watch us, they realise how much we want it. Obviously, we don’t have the players that Germany, France and a few others have got, but we work twice as hard as any other side.”

Josh Magennis, a late substitute in the win over Ukraine, agreed. “It’s the attitude we have going into games. We never say ‘never’, and we never give up. I know most teams say the same thing, but what makes us different is the passion we have for the team and the game, and the connection we have with our fans. You can see that in the support we get when we travel.”

A winning approach
Northern Ireland’s players are among the least well-known at EURO 2016, with most of them plying their trade in England’s lower divisions, not that it has prevented them from impressing in their opening two matches of the competition. “Most of us play in England, where the football’s fast and aggressive,” explained Washington, who turns out for Queens Park Rangers.

“We finished top of our group and we deserve to be here. We’re where we belong,” added Dallas. “We’re very solid at the back and we can cause problems up front too. We know there are better teams than us, but we’re difficult to beat.”

Reigning world champions Germany will be able to gauge just how difficult when they face the Northern Irish on Tuesday, a game crucial to both sides’ hopes of making the knockout phase. “We’re not a team that’s going to have 60 or 70 per cent possession, so we have to do the right thing at the right time and make good decisions,” continued Magennis, explaining how they might leave Joachim Low's side red-faced in Paris.

“We’ve got solid foundations with our goalkeeper and back four, and we’ve got team players in abundance. It’s perhaps not the nicest style, but in the end it helps us to impose ourselves. When you win with what you’ve got, then people respect that.”

With the effervescent Green and White Army right behind them, Northern Ireland have turned that respect into widespread admiration.



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