It’s not football season without the Croke Park Classic in Dublin. This year’s match-up saw the University of Central Florida pitted against Pennsylvania State in both teams’ season opener, drawing a crowd of 53,304 to Ol’ Croker on August 30.
Penn State won with a last-minute field goal 26-24, but the game, at least for Dublin, wasn’t really about the score (UCF might argue differently).
The Classic saw thousands of fans inundate the city, bringing their enthusiasm for American football and expendable income with them. The last time a college football game was held in Ireland was 2012, when Notre Dame scuttled the Navy 50-10 in the season opener to a crowd of about 4,000 fewer, according to ESPN.
For UCF coach George O’Leary, the game was even a bit of a homecoming – Croke Park is just a three-hour drive from Cork, where his grandfather was born. “The Irish heritage has always been a big part of his life,” his son Tim told The Orlando Sentinel prior to the game. “So I think to be over there playing in front of all those fans and so many relatives is exciting for him.”
George alleged that nearly 70 Irish and American-born family members were in attendance at the game, so he was not worried about reconnecting with long-lost relatives. “Anybody who is related will be hitting me up for tickets, so I’ll meet them that way,” he said.
Though the timing of the match ruffled some feathers when it displaced the Gaelic football semi-final match to Limerick, the general response was one of cultural camaraderie.
“I don’t know if Irish people understand the game,” Dubliner Joan Martin told the Sentinel. She had attended UCF’s weekday practice before the exhibition. “But Gaelic people love to see [American football fans] walking around the street. We know how much the game means to the people in the States.”