Ireland fans at Italia 90: few have travelled to this event

GREEN Army? It would have been more like a green platoon if Ireland had qualified for the World Cup, according to travel experts, who say the 2010 tournament is proving a bit of an own goal.

While a handful of Irish football fanatics have made the 6,000-mile journey, critics have attacked tournament ticket prices, saying they don't reflect the reality of a struggling world economy.

Even if Henry had never handled that ball, it is unlikely the travelling masses of Italia '90 and USA '94 would have been repeated.

Last April, with just weeks to go before kick-off, some half-a-million tickets were still on sale and there were growing concerns of empty stadiums.

And ticket agents in the UK and other countries are reporting a very lacklustre take-up on packages.

"What we thought might have been a bonanza, going on England's experience, might not have happened simply because of the cost," said Neil Horgan of Abbey Travel, the Football Association of Ireland's (FAI) official agent. "I wouldn't use the word disaster but it is definitely a disappointment.

"We brought five planes to Paris for the play-off and we would have expected to bring the same amount out to South Africa but all we now have is a couple of corporate groups and a handful of fans going out to the tournament, which from a travel point of view has been quite disappointing.

"Even if we had qualified, there is a world recession, and the incredibly high cost of hotels and air fares simply don't reflect what is going on in the rest of the world," said Horgan.

He added that just 25 to 30 football fans had booked trips ro South Africa.

"All World Cups happened in booms and people had much more money in their pockets than they had four years ago, but the South African hotels and air fares didn't take that into account."

Empty hotel rooms are reported in all the tournament host cities. On the eve of the finals, air fares dropped dramatically from the prices that were quoted at the beginning of the year.

Packages for €3,499 – including flights, car hire, match tickets and top hotels – are now going for just €2,299.

Some Irish fans are determined to join the fun, however.

Speaking from Cape Town, Belfast man Nelson Alexander said: "We are here for the next nine weeks, me and three buddies.

"The hotel we are staying at, there are a few French there. They said that a lot of fans at home didn't come over because of the embarrassment as to how they got through.

"There are a few Irish. We have been in the Dubliner Irish bar every night and you can see the jerseys."

Bar owner David McCarthy added: "There are a couple of Irish out here but you could probably count them fairly quickly."