“It was an unbelievable experience”, describes Turlough O’Connor.
It might be stretching it slightly to say that Ireland’s maiden World Cup victory actually came 18 years before that shoot-out victory against Romania at Italia ’90. But in the summer of 1972 the Republic of Ireland contested the Minicopa (or Mini World Cup/Brazilian Independence Cup) in Brazil. Organisers secured over one quarter of the teams who competed in the previous World Cup for this tournament, which marked 150 years of Brazilian Independence from Portugal. Striker Turlough O’Connor was in between a move from Dundalk back to Bohemians – who he had made his name with previously, earning his cross channel move to Fulham – when he was paid a visit by then Ireland boss, Liam Tuohy.
“I’ll never forget the call-up. I came around the corner at home and my daughter, Niamh – only 2 at the time – had walked around from our home in Ardmore Drive and there sitting on the wall with my wife was Liam Tuohy. He asked, ‘How would you be fixed to come to Brazil?’ But it was for 3 weeks. Suddenly I was working around in my head whether I’ll be able to get time off work or not.” He’d secure the time off work to join the likes of: Ray Treacy; Joe Kinnear; Alan Kelly; Mick Leech; Don Givens and Paddy Mulligan, in a strong but small Irish squad on the plane to Brazil.
Ireland got their campaign off to a flier in Recife – where they’d play 3 of their 4 games – defeating Asian representatives, Iran, 2-1. Although it could have been a disastrous start for Ireland before a ball was even kicked. The pre-match national anthems were shelved just before kick-off, when it was discovered the music the band were intending to play was that of, God Save the Queen. Bloody Sunday had occurred in Derry that January.
Next it was onto Natal – a coastal city – which sits just over 600 km south of the equator – for the mid-June clash with Ecuador. O’Connor describes a bleak scene in the northern city. “In ’72 in Brazil in that northern area, the hardship and the poverty was unreal, it was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. It was difficult to see. In Natal they had this ship of hope – it was an American ship with doctors and nurses that went in to help the people. It’s amazing to think that when we talk about ’72 in Brazil and you see this happening in Europe now at this time, it’s frightening that it could happen 40 years later.” The ship, the SS Hope, was a re-fitted US Navy ship whose mission was, “No pill and band-aid handout”, instead leaving a legacy of medical knowledge and training.
In the game Ireland came from 2-1 down to defeat the acclimatised South Americans and it was O’Connor who lobbed in the winner with 6 minutes remaining. Ireland managed to win 3-2, even with the second half sending off of Don Givens. The stadium where the match was played will forever be remembered in World Cup folklore, as the re-built version of that arena was that of Suárez bite fame from last summer’s World Cup.
The squad journeyed back south to Recife for the third match against Chile, which was to be O’Connor’s last game of the tournament. The striker received a straight red card for slamming into a Chilean opponent, showing his frustration after he adamantly claims Ireland should have been awarded a penalty. Even now, over 40 years on, there’s animation in the Athlone man’s voice when he speaks of the incident. He didn’t go quietly at the time either, as a match report in the Irish Times describes. Whilst making his way towards the dressing rooms, “On the way, O’Connor tore off his shirt and waved it at the jeering crowd”. Ireland had succumbed to their first defeat of the tournament, 2-1. That red card meant that O’Connor would sit out the final group fixture against Portugal, although Ireland were effectively out – needing to win by a considerable margin against the group favourites.
“Portugal would have been one of the favourites at the time, especially with the squad of players that they had”, explained O’Connor. Mick Leech scored for Ireland in what O’Connor describes as a disappointing 2-1 defeat [view goals]. “We played very well against Portugal and were very unlucky not to get a result. I was really looking forward to that one. I would have loved to play against Portugal and Eusébio too.”
Portugal went on to win the group and qualify for the 8-team elite phase. Then after seeing off: Argentina; Uruguay and Soviet Union, they rather ironically qualified for the Brazilian Independence Cup final against hosts, Brazil. Before a baying audience of over ninety-nine thousand, Brazil defeated their once colonial masters, 1-0 at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Jairzinho’s 89th minute deftly flicked header sealed an emotional triumph for Brazil, as 150 years on, Portugal were once again sent back across the Atlantic empty handed.
O’Connor went on to a distinguished club career as a player and a manager, although he only picked up a handful more Irish caps.
Sipping on his tea and nibbling on a digestive, O’Connor reflects on the tournament as a special time. “There was a great atmosphere in the country (Brazil) for football. One thing, because you were representing a country, immediately they were in awe of you and they treated you like film stars more than footballers. That was one of the first times that I ever experienced that”.
For the love of it
The Julies Rimet trophy may not have been on offer for this tournament, but for O’Connor international football was about more than trophies and medals. “Today’s world when you think about some of the guys who have no enthusiasm to play for their country. It saddens me. With the finance and the money, it seems to have taken preference over the pride of actually playing for your country. You are going on a tour of Brazil for three weeks and playing for your country, money didn’t come into it at all. Being picked and presenting your country was far more important than money”.
Today, international cry-offs have become all too common place, as the modern footballer makes vast sums of money and views the evasion of international football as a means to extend their club careers, in a bid to prolong their earning power. However it is O’Connor who will re-call rich memories of pulling on the green jersey in the summer of ’72, when an international cap was priceless.