SEEING DOUBLE Republic of Ireland fans Paul, left, and George Sweeney from Castlebar are pictured before the game with Italy. Pic: Sportsfile
“IT’S like looking for the train to Hogwarts,” one Republic of Ireland fan said with a shake of his head as he attempted – along with the rest of us – to locate Platform 5b at Brussels South railway station. We were off to Lille for what turned out to be one of the most magical nights in Irish sporting history.
Having eventually found our south-bound TGV, we sat opposite a man wearing a leprechaun as part of his outfit. The little elf proved a huge hit. Nicknamed Pádraig, the leprechaun was even offered a drink of Belgian beer. There would be plenty more where that came from.
With very few Italians on the train, the Ireland followers were in fine voice from the start. “Oh Trapattoni,” one man sang, “he used to be Irish but now he’s Italian again!”
In a spirit of international comradeship, we chose an Italian restaurant for our pre-match meal in Lille. Having spotted Fergie and John McEllin from Castlebar in the train station, we took the metro out to the stadium early, and found a hotel in which to watch the Portugal-Hungary goal-fest. Match tickets were ten-a-penny – it was most definitely a buyer’s market last Wednesday.
I found myself in the front row of the stand, and once Robbie Brady’s goal went in, virtually everybody stayed standing for the closing stages. There were hugs, kisses, songs and tears of joy, plus time for a post-match drink in the hotel (where, remarkably, I was reunited with the jacket I had completely forgotten to bring to the stadium).
Behind me on the night bus back to Brussels was an Irish woman based in Copenhagen whose wedding was just two weeks away. Her other half, a Dane, was at home minding their daughter. “The two lads beside me went to the wrong stadium,” she revealed. “They didn’t turn up till 25 past nine.” At least they didn’t miss the goal.
It was almost 3.30am when we arrived back near Brussels North railway station. With no taxis in sight, I set off on the half-hour walk back to my apartment. The streets were quiet – the only person who paid me any heed was a lady of the night, who shouted from across the street. I’m pretty sure I was being offered sex, but I may have been mistaken ... my French is a little rusty.
The strangest moment of the week came on Friday, when I took the train to the Netherlands. A group of Belgians on a stag party boarded in Antwerp. One of their number was wearing a full Super Mario plumber’s outfit, complete with cap, overalls, fake moustache and even a miniature tricycle, which he proceeded to drive up and down the train carriage. I haven’t laughed so much in ages.
On Saturday morning, our adventure over, we headed for Eindhoven Airport, where a Dutch policeman smiled as he handed me back my passport. “Good luck against the French,” he said. Sadly, Frexit was not to be.