On the day of the World Cup final, I was supposed to be attending an early evening concert by my singing friend Noel O’Grady in Bewleys Café Theatre. This was on foot of a promise, made weeks earlier without reference to other possible events of the day, including football.
That was one problem now. The other problem was I couldn’t remember what time the gig started. Nor was there anything online to check. So, after some hesitation, I finally had to text Noel himself, thereby reminding him of the promised attendance he might otherwise have forgotten.
I was very worried he would say the concert was at 3pm (or worse, him being a former Army officer, at “1500 hours sharp”). Then I’d have faced an awkward decision, or more likely an awkward explanation about how I might be two hours late. It was a big relief when he said “5pm” instead. “Thank God!” I replied, referencing the rival fixture. To which Noel, all too aware of the clash, noted that the game would be over at “4.55pm” at the earliest. It wouldn’t leave football fans much time to travel.
Happily, as we all know, Argentina had the result sewn up by half-time. And they still had it sewn up with 15 minutes left. Then France ruined everything. For the next hour, what had been a merely a good game turned into a classic, impossible to switch off.
When my friend and I finally sneaked in a side door of Bewley’s, the most we could hope for was that Noel might still be doing encores. In fact – hurray! – the concert had started late. It too was heading for extra time. With the vocal mastery that made him a five-time winner of the Oireachtas na Gaeilge singing competition, Noel would hold the audience spellbound for another hour.
Afterwards, happily, he accepted my apology for the unmissable football like the philosopher he is, rather than the Army man he was. He’s a sports lover himself, after all. “Although,” he added – here I started worrying again – “you can miss anything.”
He recalled a similarly famous game in 2016, when the Irish rugby team’s first ever win against the All-Blacks coincided with a visit to his mother in west Kerry.
The local pub beckoned, but he had to remind himself then that his mother wouldn’t always be around to talk to. So he let the game slide, a decision for which he was soon and forever grateful.
“And sure, we beat the All-Blacks every second week now,” I added, completing the parable.
Three days later, on the morning of the solstice, I caught a taxi to Killiney, to test the theory that you can see a sun-lit Newgrange from the hill there. It was still an hour before dawn on the longest night of the year. But murky as the sky was, the mood of my taxi driver was even darker.
It wasn’t the alignment of winter sunlight in ancient monuments he was worried about. It was the lack of alignment in Dublin’s traffic lights, which, as he explained while taking the long way around College Green, had been designed with the express purpose of annoying him.
The only thing that annoyed him more than traffic lights, it seemed, was the Minister for Transport, a subject that rendered him nearly apoplectic. Luckily, he was soon distracted from that by a cyclist on Nassau Street who, despite the expansive bicycle lane, opted to keep us company out on the road instead. After that, there was the annoying driver in Ballsbridge: indicating right but veering left and occupying both lanes while considering his options.
By Booterstown, I was worried about the taxi-man’s blood pressure, and afraid to introduce new lines of conversation that might make it worse. Then he sighed and asked: “Did you watch the World Cup?”
Fortunately, I had watched it. And as we reviewed the events of the past month, the driver finally calmed down. He agreed with me that, despite everything, it had been a great tournament. He agreed the right team had won. As for Lionel Messi, he grew visibly cheerful at the mention.
It was great that Messi had crowned his career like this. It was great he’d been able to compensate for loss of youth with cuteness. It was lovely that, compared with the other fella – Ronaldo – he always seemed as happy when teammates scored as when he scored himself. And so on.
Dawn had still not broken when we reached Killiney. But the light of Messi had penetrated the taxi, spreading warmth to the driver’s dark interior. His anger was all gone now. Just reflecting on the World Cup had been enough to make him happy, although the €38 on the meter must have helped a bit too.