By Jay Mwamba
The Irish Post Office will commemorate Ireland’s participation in the 2002 finals by issuing a series of postage stamps featuring four heroes, past and present, of the Republic’s World Cup legacy.
Skipper Roy Keane, from the Japan/Korea-bound side, and retired World Cup veterans David O’Leary, Paul McGrath and goalkeeper Packie Bonner will be featured on stamps that will be issued in May next year.
The Irish government has already approved the designs for the stamps, it was announced in Dublin last week. An Post previously issued stamps for Italia ’90 and USA ’94, both of which the Republic qualified for.
McGrath and Bonner played in both Italia ’90 and USA ’94, while O’Leary appeared in Italia ’90.
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Germany, perhaps Ireland’s biggest concern in Group E, are leaving no stone unturned in their preparation for the finals. Rudi Voeller’s side has lined up no fewer than six friendlies before the start of the finals on May 31.
The three-time world champions begin their warm-up schedule with a game against Isr’l on Feb. 13, then host the United States in Rostock on March 27, and England’s Group F rivals Argentina in Stuttgart on April 27.
Then it’s Kuwait, currently under the tutelage of ex-German national coach Berti Vogts, on May 9 in Freiburg, followed by Austria in the German’s final match before the World Cup, on May 18 in Leverkusen. A third game, in between the Kuwait and Austria tune-ups, is also planned.
According to FIFA records released last week, Saudi Arabia, considered the weakest team in Ireland’s group, were the highest-scoring nation in the World Cup qualifiers among the 32 finalists.
They netted 47 goals in 14 matches in the Asian zone and also produced the top scorer in Talal Meshaal, who had 11 goals.
At the bottom of the scale, the United States, with 11 goals in 10 games, were the lowest-scoring team.
Croatia had the best defensive record, giving up just two goals in eight qualifiers, an average of 0.25 per game, in Group 6.
Tehran’s Azadi stadium, where Ireland lost 1-0 in the second leg of their playoff with Iran, recorded the largest attendance for a qualifying match when 120,000 fans showed up to watch the Iran-Saudi Arabia clash.
The lowest turnout, on the other hand, was in neutral Amman, where only 20 people paid to watch Turkmenistan against Taiwan.
England appear to be the fan favorites in Japan, where all the domestic-market tickets for their Group F matches sold out within days of going on sale.
Tickets for England’s grudge match with Argentina in Sapporo on June 7 sold out on Dec. 10, the first day team-specific tickets were released.
“England-Argentina was the quickest. It sold out almost as fast as the Japan games,” said Hisao Shuto, an official with the Japanese World Cup Organizing Committee (JAWOC).
England’s opener against Sweden in Saitama on June 2 sold out last Wednesday, while tickets for the 1966 winners’ final group match against Nigeria in Osaka on June 12 were also snapped up within the first few days, Shuto said.
Only tickets for Argentina-Sweden and Nigeria-Sweden in the “Group of Death” were still available domestically by the end of the week.
Other popular tickets that were exhausted domestically last Friday were Japan’s Group H matches against Belgium (June 4), Russia (June 9), and Tunisia (June 14); the Argentina-Nigeria Group F clash (June 2), and the Italy-Croatia Group G encounter (June 8).