Football / World Cup USA '94: Sound of music fills the night: Alan Murdoch steps out in Dublin amid the sights and sounds of a great rejoicing

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YOU would have thought the Italians had won to judge from the amount of passionate kissing and embracing of total strangers as the final whistle sounded. After the uproar that greeted Ray Houghton's gloriously flighted lob into the net, there was even an outbreak of a familiar operatic aria.

But this was Dublin 1994, not Italia '90 and, 12 minutes into Saturday night's game, the wits in the balcony of Whelan's Bar in Wexford Street mimicking Pavarotti had added their own words to Nessun Dorma's closing crescendo: 'It's a goal] IT'S A GOAAAL]' they sang rapturously.

Revenge for the disappointment of a Roman night four years ago was too sweet not to gloat about. 'Where's Schillacci gone? Far, far away,' the raucous choir above sang gleefully as an encore, to the tune of 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep'.

Despite Saturday morning's unthinkable act of national treachery by Dublin bar staff, who called a lightning strike, about half the city's bars were open. Some closed their doors three hours before kick-off, not through industrial action but because of overcrowding. Entire families came clad in full Irish team kit.

Relayed Irish singing from the Giants Stadium was instantly reprised back home. Any sight of a peculiarly content Jack Charlton provoked thunderous cheers. With the final whistle in sight, every precise but fierce Irish tackle was cheered like another goal.

The lack of Italian noise from New York had one young Dub asking: 'With the Mafia on their side, how come they couldn't get hold of a few tickets?' Chiefly, it seemed, because the Murphia had got there first.

All week there was a tangible feeling that Ireland could damage Italy, borne of belief in the five-man midfield and the defensive rock of of Paul McGrath and Phil Babb. If 1990 was simply a glad-to-be-there party, it was now getting serious.

Ireland's leading satirist, Dermot Morgan, also a football fannatic, yesterday summed it up neatly: 'I was raised on moral victories - when we were stuffed three or four nil. Now it seems almost excessive to win the first game. We've no right to think we can win (the cup). But right now I can't see who is going to beat us.'

Frenzied Saturday night fever had a touch of euphoric disbelief. O'Connell Street, deserted at 10pm, became a teeming throng. Across the Liffey, crocodiles of people danced between the jammed traffic, car horns conducting cacophonous duets, shouting occupants waving flags from sunroofs and windows.

The winning goal will now go into legend. All week, prayers and blessings had flowed in to Irish radio to be taped and sent to team headquarters. A Mullingar teacher, twisting traditional benedictions, ventured: 'May the road rise up to greet you; may the wind be always at your back. And may the ball be in the net before the Italians know you have it.' Thus was Ray Houghton inspired.

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