We travelled to Belfast this week to see Northern Ireland take on the Champions of Europe, Italy in the final game of the group stage qualifying for the World Cup 2022.
Fresh from seeing the Republic of Ireland’s young guns and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Aviva Stadium only three nights previously we were already high on the energy of a good international game.
Windsor Park as it was or the National Football Stadium as it now is, was transformed in recent years through investment from the Stormont and Westminster Governments and the work of the executive at the Irish FA.
Its capacity is just over 18,000, making it small by international standards but the atmosphere that can be generated through one of the best acoustic setups we have had the pleasure to hear up close is electric.
Visible from the motorway on the way into the City travelling from the south, the stadium sits to the west of the Queens University campus in a tight-packed warren of streets which in days of old might have been seen as pretty unwelcoming to visitors from south of the border.
There are a lot of Union flags draped over the pitch barriers in the ground but they are outnumbered by flags of Northern Ireland and the enthusiasm of the crowd for this team is off the charts.
Having qualified for the Euro 2016 tournament, they rekindled what it is to back a winning team and in players like Stuart Dallas and Jonny Evans, they have the class to maintain that.
In relation to this World Cup, their race was run already by Monday but they had managed a first home win of the campaign on Friday against Lithuania and this was an Italian visiting side packed full of international stars like Bonnucy, Chieas and Donnuramma.
Football in a stadium environment is an entertainment experience these days. The music, the lights, the choreography of the teams arriving onto the pitch and more are all part of what makes up the night.
The National Anthems are a part of that and in this area on Monday, the Irish FA excelled.
Carly Paoli is a British-Italian opera singer who is friends with the wife of former Northern Ireland international David Campbell. Before the players arrived onto the pitch a small team erected a little platform in the centre circle and Paoli walked out in true operatic style wearing a billowing full-length blue gown.
The Italian anthem is one of those that cannot fail to stir you and Paoli thrilled the corner of the stadium that the Italians occupied with a powerful rendition of Fratelli Italia.
As the final notes echoed around you had to wonder could she possibly apply the same vigour to God Save the Queen for the home faithful.
Then, in a sweep of blue the operatic dress was gone and she was standing on the platform dressed head to high heels in a replica Northern Ireland kit.
It was pure theatre, the GAWA faithful and everyone in the crowd loved it and most of the smiles were stuck to faces for the rest of the night. Northern Ireland were the better team and created the greater chances, fully deserving of a share of the points but condemning the Italians to another World Cup Qualifying Play-Off. At the end of the night, with the ground still belting out Sweet Caroline Bonnuci and Berardi were called out for an Italian TV interview that was obviously delayed longer than was comfortable adding to their reflection on how five months can be a long time in sport.
We were at the game as guests of Electric Ireland whose partnership with the Irish FA and in particular their support of the Northern Ireland Women’s team is one we will be following closely in the run-up to next summer’s UEFA Women’s Euro Finals.
If they are half as entertaining as Monday night, they’ll be among the sporting highlights of next year.
Sport for Business Perspective
Northern Ireland home games used to have an altogether different vibe about them. Seeing the changes that the team have brought about from afar is impressive but to witness and feel them live was an unexpected and heartening experience.
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