CAGLIARI, ITALY, JUNE 11 -- Out here on Sardinia, the armed camp of the World Cup finals, the English finally got to play tonight. And their fans, after passing through the strictest security measures at any of this tournament's 12 sites, got to watch -- but they didn't have much to cheer about.
The English, to their profound embarrassment, were tied, 1-1, by neophyte Ireland, appearing in its first Cup finals. It was the green-clad thousands who got to roar.
The English performance was as depressing as the scene surrounding the game, the need for such stringent security -- submachine guns, mounted police, dogs, frisking of English and Irish fans at the gates -- all because of the English reputation for "hooliganism" at soccer matches. Spectators had to pass through three checkpoints before gaining entrance to Saint 'Elia Stadium in this city on the southern tip of the island west of the mainland. The security appeared to be effective; no major incidents were immediately reported in the vicinity of the stadium.
Ireland took the tie jubilantly.
"Our boys played hard and we deserved it," said Jack Charlton, the Irish coach who had every reason to be happy. A hero in England's only Cup victory in 1966, Charlton was snubbed for the top coaching job in England only to go to Ireland and be a huge success. A tall, angular man, he did not try to hide his exuberance in the slightest, saying, "England did not cause us many problems. I can't remember one except for the goal. All in all, I'm delighted."
Charlton took over as Ireland's coach in 1986. Two years later, the Irish stunned England, 1-0, in the European National Championships. The English swore it would be a different outcome tonight. But it wasn't different enough to make them happy.
England's coach, Bobby Robson, hung his head. "We had the game and lost it," he lamented, looking almost as if he would break into tears. At the same time, thousands of Irish fans already were singing in the clogged city streets.
Tonight English soccer seemed to be going the way of the British empire. Gary Lineker, 29, who in 1986 became the first Englishman to ever be top goal-scorer in Cup play, put England ahead. In the eighth minute, he broke free into a 25 mph wind that blew off the sea and beat Irish goalkeeper Paddy Bonner.
England settled down, expecting to atone for 1988. Play was uninspiring on both sides. A cold downpour just after the second half started made almost everyone miserable -- except, perhaps, the English players who seemed to be helped by the soggy footing.
But the worst kind of disaster struck for England. Ireland began pressing its attack in the 60th minute. In the 70th minute, Robson inserted midfielder Steve McMahon into the lineup. Just four minutes later, McMahon made the blunder of his soccer career. Failing to clear a ball, he actually gave it back to Ireland's Kevin Sheedy, and perfectly at that, directly onto Sheedy's left foot.
Sheedy is a cunning winger, who is known for curling corner kicks on and off his forehead for goals. Just as efficient with his left foot, he struck the ball from the left side to the right corner of the net past the outstretched arms of the 40-year-old wonder of a goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, in his third World Cup.
Robson wanted a penalty kick after another of his standouts, Chris Waddle, a great runner and inspirational leader, went down in the penalty box. But there was no referee's whistle -- which brought an even larger roar of approval from the Irish fans and whistles from the English ones among the not-quite-sellout crowd of 35,238. Worse, Lineker had to come out with stomach cramps after the Sheedy goal, which left the English without their leader.
Meanwhile, most of England's fans were without their lager. A ban on the sale of alcohol was put in effect for the game day -- although the measure was hardly foolproof. It wasn't just the English who had hoarded some brew. An Irish fan who accidently kicked a reporter's computer near the front door of a hotel said, "Pardon, but at this time, the mind and the feet are not connected."
Full of himself, Charlton heaped more praise, saying, "I have the hardest working midfield in the whole competition. You have to play hard to get through our midfield." Ireland hopes to beat Egypt, then hopes for the best against the Netherlands. The Irish team began thinking tonight for sure that three teams from its bracket may advance to the second round -- the Netherlands, England and Ireland.
The poor English. Robson wants the Cup badly, but doesn't seem to have a chance. He complimented Sheedy saying, "He punished the mistake."
The hard fact about English soccer is, it has suffered badly since England was banned five years ago from competing in the three European Cup competitions. The ban by the European Football Association (UEFA) followed violence by English fans at the European Champions Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in Brussels in which 38 fans were killed.
Mustering what seemed to be a last bit of strength, the disspirited English coach promised a better performance from his team Saturday night, when it plays its pivotal game against the Netherlands, a Cup favorite.
"Our match against Holland will be quite different," he said, "than the one you saw here."