By Jay Mwamba
And so it ended, as all things seemed to be for the Irish in this unusual World Cup, amid drama, suspense and uncertainty.
The Roy Keane melodrama — the brooding star’s initial walkout and change of mind, his expulsion from the squad by Mick McCarthy, and the worldwide suspense over his possible return — all turned out to be harbingers of what was in store for the Republic in their third bid for football’s most coveted prize.
At any rate, McCarthy’s tough and gritty warriors would close ranks behind their determined boss. They would then proceed to belie both detractors and conventional wisdom, in the wake of the Keane controversy, by advancing to the second round in improbable fashion from one of the 32-nation tournament’s most competitive groups.
There would be grudging respect from rival coaches such as Germany’s Rudi Voeller, Saudi Nasser Al-Johar and Spain’s Jose Antonio Camacho, who would all talk about the Irish pressure brought to bear on their respective teams.
Japanese and Korean fans would also come to love the fight and passion in the Irish game, and express their admiration by turning out in droves at the squad’s public training sessions. Fan favorites they became.
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Even the penalty defeat against a cagey Spanish side that rode the form of its young goalie cannot take the luster off Ireland’s World Cup performance, which exceeded the expectation of many a pundit.
And what drama.
Gallant fight-backs, goals on the stroke of the full time, fluffed penalties and rousing confirmation that Ireland has fresh, young talent to go with the 43-year-old McCarthy’s new contract offer. Two ingredients that should guarantee at least a couple more World Cup campaigns down the line, even as old war horses Steve Staunton, Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer bid farewell to the green jersey.
Battling the elements and a highly regarded opponent much at home in the sweltering heat, Ireland’s Group E opener against African and Olympic champs Cameroon in Niigata on June 1 pretty much established the blueprint, whether by design or nature, for all their games in the Far East. A slow start and galloping finish.
Cameroon, with all their speed and intimidating physique, threatened to run them off the field in Niigata in the opening half.
But despite falling a goal behind before the interval, a second-half rally inspired by two midfielders assigned to pick up the disgraced Keane’s slack, Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella, yielded an equalizer for Holland.
Ireland then followed up with such pressure that by the time the final whistle blew, the Lions were on the ropes, gasping for air.
Ditto a German side now being touted to reach the final. Four days after demolishing Saudi Arabia 8-0, the smug Germans were ran ragged in the second half in Ibaraki, en route to conceding a final-minute goal that established Robbie Keane’s new reputation as a clutch player for the Republic.
“We never really freed ourselves from the pressure they applied on us. [Ireland] getting the goal was inevitable,” Voeller would admit later.
If anything, the 1-1 tie with Germany was yet again proof positive of Ireland’s new status as a European footballing power.
Throw in the Spain result after extra time, and McCarthy and the Republic can boast of an undefeated record in the 2002 World Cup competition (from the qualifiers to the finals) against Portugal, Holland, Germany and Spain.
McCarthy talked glowingly of his admiration for his players after Sunday’s elimination, calling them a “wonderful bunch of people” and noting how proud he is to have had a chance to work with them.
Assuming that wasn’t a farewell speech, Irish fans can expect another exciting run in the Euro ’04 qualifiers that begin in the fall.
With young, exciting players on the cusp of greatness like Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Stephen Reid, Shay Given, Kevin Kilbane, Clinton Morrison and even the sometimes maligned Ian Harte, the future will remain bright for the Republic even as the memories of Japan/Korea ’02 recede.