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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 05:37 GMT 06:37 UK
Showing respect for Ireland's icons
Irish football team at Phoenix Park
Welcome home! The team thanks its loyal fans

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The Irish nation was determined to celebrate the return of its footballing heroes in style.

Nearly 100,000 flag-waving, cheering fans crowded into a patch of Phoenix Park in Dublin to salute the Ireland team, their manager and even every single until-now anonymous member of the travelling backroom staff.

To a degree, players like Jason McAteer - whose birthday this also happened to be - and the veteran Niall Quinn, who is now hanging up his international boots, were embarrassed by the noisy, green, white and orange reception in the golden evening sunlight.

Irish fans in the crowds at Phoenix Park
Fans behaved as though Ireland had won

But they responded like the newly-inaugurated diplomats for the Irish nation that they had become in South Korea and Japan during their exciting-but-traumatic passage through the first two World Cup rounds.

They acknowledged the hero worship with dignity, kind words for the fans' devotion and enough humility to endear them to the families who had trekked across the biggest public park in Europe to wait to catch a glimpse of the new national icons.

If the start of their World Cup campaign had been sullied by the Roy Keane affair and the vitriol and venom that went with it, the end was in danger of being coloured by the very public row about whether or not the team should have been allowed to parade through the streets of the capital in an open-topped bus.

The security and health and safety authorities said "No".

But the government reluctantly agreed, and the Phoenix Park concert-cum-welcome-home-reception became nobody's favourite substitute.

'Amazed'

But crowds of cheering Irish people - mainly youngsters, families and fanatics - stood wearing green replica shirts, waving their flags and banners as if the footballers had won the World Cup.

Irish football fans packed into Phoenix Park
Hero worship: Fans came from all over Ireland
Pop groups Westlife and Six - wearing the national football colours - were the top acts on the stage, but it was the appearance of the 22-man squad that the crowds waited hours for.

They had arrived by chartered jumbo before being ferried by helicopter to see President Mary McAleese then bussed to the Phoenix Park stage.

Manager Mick McCarthy was the most articulate, praising the Irish fans who had travelled or stayed at home for their invaluable support.

Captain Steve Staunton said he was "amazed" by the size of the reception.

Boost

Even the penalty-missers like Matt Holland were overwhelmed by the hero worship.

Ireland has a knack of squeezing the maximum from any international endeavour - just remember its Eurovision monopoly a few years ago.

This time its footballers have given the tiny country a remarkable boost - the economic and tourism knock-on effects are already being calculated.

And a thankful population in the capital went to extreme lengths on a balmy Irish June evening to pay their deepest respects.


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