With one of the biggest clubs in European soccer making its return to the Emerald Isle on Thursday, Irish soccer is buzzing.
AC Milan expects to have Zlatan Ibrahimovic in tow against Shamrock Rovers in Europa League qualifying for the storied Italian club’s first competitive game on Irish soil since 1975, when it was held to a scoreless draw in the midland town of Athlone.
It’s welcome attention for Ireland — where many fans openly support teams in the Premier League and beyond — and reminiscent of Real Madrid’s 2009 preseason visit that featured Cristiano Ronaldo’s debut for the Spanish club.
“The news coverage, talk radio, sports radio, digital platforms, podcasts, it’s all been about this game,” Rovers board director Mark Lynch said. “For us as a club, it’s great to hear and see that. The attention has been at extremely high levels and spread near and far.”
The second qualifying round game will be played in an empty Tallaght Stadium, in south Dublin, under UEFA’s strict rules because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Hoops — technically Shamrock Rovers’ nickname based on their traditional green-and-white hoop jerseys — are the underdogs. The pandemic-restricted schedule means just one game, however, which could give the hosts a boost.
“There’s no fear,” Rovers striker Graham Burke told Irish Football Fan TV on Tuesday. “I don’t see where there should be pressure on us going into the game.
“I know it’s AC Milan and everything, people may not give us a chance of anything,” Burke said. “We think we maybe have a shot if we compose ourselves.”
The Irish squad has also built some momentum. They are comfortably leading their domestic league and are three weeks removed from a thrilling 12-11 penalty shootout over Finnish club Ilves in the first qualifying round.
Meanwhile, Milan will be looking to start this season where it left off a few weeks ago. The team won nine of its 12 games after the restart, drawing the other three.
Milan also won all four of its pre-season games, scoring 16 goals and conceding five.
This will be Milan’s first game in European competition since late 2018. The club served a one-season ban last year for violating financial fair play rules.
It will also be the 38-year-old Ibrahimovic’s first match for Milan in the Europa League, a competition he won with Manchester United in 2017, and Sandro Tonali could make his debut for the club.
“The first competitive games of the season are around the corner,” said the 20-year-old Tonali, who joined from Brescia this month. “We want to take on the world.”
The visiting clubs pocket international broadcast revenue, but in a busy week across Europe, Lynch said this missed opportunity is “less lucrative than some observers would think.”
As a small-budget team, Lynch said they’re happy to have picked up more than 200,000 euros ($235,000) for each qualification round so far. Still, they can’t compete on a financial basis with the likes of Milan.
“I won’t even guess what the salary levels of top Serie A clubs are or what team budgets are, but ours would certainly be more modest,” Lynch said.
In 2011, Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish club to make it to a group stage of a modern European competition, Lynch said. The feat was matched by Dundalk in 2016.
Milan visited Athlone during the UEFA Cup campaign in 1975, with Giovanni Trapattoni along as an assistant coach. Trapattoni later had a successful run as coach of Ireland’s national team.
“I’m sure it was a great occasion,” Lynch said. “We’ve got our own great occasion coming up on Thursday.”
AP Sports Writer Daniella Matar in Milan contributed to this report.
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