Ireland qualifies for Euro 2012

The Irish national soccer team has qualified tonight for the 2012 European Football Championship, the first major soccer tournament it will contest since the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea.

A sea of green washed over the streets around Dublin’s Lansdowne Road as devoted supporters roared with joy after the team held Estonia to a 1-1 draw.

The result means Ireland will play in next summer’s Euro 2012 competition in Poland and Ukraine.

The outcome was never in doubt since the first leg of the tie on Friday, when Ireland defeated Estonia in Tallinn by four goals to nil, giving an aggregate victory on the night of 5-1.

The ‘boys in green’ - whose only previous appearance in the finals of a European Championships was in 1988 - ensured there would be no shock comeback by their opponents when Stephen Ward scored in the 32nd minute.

Euro ‘88 stars Packie Bonner, Paul McGrath and Mick McCarthy were all on hand to witness the historic qualification, the first on home soil. It was also observed by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and newly elected Irish President Michael D Higgins.

There were wild scenes of celebration as most of the 51,151 fans, including new president Michael D Higgins, stayed behind to acknowledge the players on a lap of honour.

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) aided the party atmosphere by providing over 50,000 green cards for fans to show their support. It was like the last day of school, as these became paper airplanes that cascaded down onto the pitch.

Two years ago, Ireland lost out for World Cup qualification at the hands of a notorious foul by France’s Thierry Henry. But that was far from the minds of fans tonight as a party broke out on the stands shortly after kick-off.

Jubilant fans are already making plans to travel for next summer’s tournament.

Stephen Toner, who drove 100 miles from Belfast to watch the match, was so overjoyed he pledged to name his unborn child Giovanni in honour of the Ireland manager, the veteran Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

“I’m going to call my kid Giovanni Toner - that’ll be on his birth certificate when he’s born in January,” cheered a rapturous Mr Toner.

Speaking afterwards, Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief John Delaney praised the coach and team and said he believed the victory “would lift the nation”.

Midfielder Damien Duff said it was “about time” the team played in the finals of a major tournament.

“It’s an amazing feeling -- it’s probably even better than [reaching the World Cup in] 2002 because time is running out for a few of us, so I suppose you appreciate it more now,” Duff said. “It’s brilliant and it’s about time -- 25 years since we’ve been to the Euros and 10 since we got to a major tournament.”

The draw for the Euro 2012 group stages takes place in Kiev on 2 December.

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