By Jay Mwamba
Across the verdant north European nation that gave the world Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, and a host of other noted footballers, many a Dutch fan are likely to be staring forlornly at TV sets this June, wondering what went wrong, when the sport’s biggest event gets under way next Friday.
What went wrong, Irish fans may counter, is that the still formidable orange machine ran into a green force that is one of the most balanced, talent and experience wise, teams in the world.
In the six years since the first player to captain Ireland in the World Cup finals took over the managerial reins from the venerated Jack Charlton in 1996, Ireland has grown as a team.
Through the aching disappointment of playoffs past in the France ’98 and Euro 2000 qualifiers, Mick McCarthy stuck with an experienced core of players whose time he knew would come.
This homogeneous lot includes staples of the Charlton regime like the evergreen Steve Staunton, young Gary Kelly, wing-half Jason McAteer, big Niall Quinn, and the irreplaceable Roy Keane, as well as McCarthy’s own picks such as goalie Shay Given, center half Gary Breen, defender Kenny Cunningham, and Ian Harte, who all came into the frame in 1996.
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Together with new finds like the exciting Damien Duff — for whom World Cup stardom may be beckoning — Robbie Keane, Stephen Reid, and Clinton Morrison, they constitute a blend of youth and experience, scrappy old-school tenacity and finesse, and a combination of youthful expectation and gritty determination by the older players eager for one final hurrah on the big stage.
In Ireland’s Group E, only Cameroon come close to matching this collective experience, with the Lions’ core, including Patrick Mboma, Rigobert Song Raymond Kalla Nkongo, Pierre Wome Nlend, and Samuel Eto’o having been around for six or more years.
McCarthy’s Ireland have also matured tactically over the years — a point not lost in the World Cup qualifiers on two of the most technically endowed teams in the world: Portugal and Holland.
A tough, no-nonsense center half in his international days under Charlton, McCarthy discarded his former mentor’s long ball approach when he took over to suit the strengths of the players he was looking for.
“It worked well under Jack that way, but I realized it wouldn’t work any more and it was time to let the players pass it around,” he said.
“Now we have players like Damien Duff, Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland who are brilliant passers of the ball and with ‘Quinnie’ [Quinn] struggling for fitness, we need more balls along the ground.”
The result has been an Irish squad able to stretch together a two-year unbeaten run until last week’s loss to mercurial Nigeria, and a team able to go to both Amsterdam and Lisbon and return unscathed.
Surprisingly for such a solid squad with impressive credentials, Ireland don’t exactly appear on many pundits’ radars going into the finals.
Not many teams after all can boast of ruining Ruud van Nilsterooy and Patrick Kluivert’s summer in a World Cup year. And as they showed in their 2-0 romp over the United States in Foxboro, Mass., last Sunday, the Dutch are still a dangerous side.
McCarthy, however, is not bothered.
“We haven’t received much publicity over our achievements and that suits me fine,” he said. “For my money we are in with a great chance of doing really well starting with the group because it is weaker than the one we qualified from.” Self-belief, he points out, is the trick.
“We have made progress and more importantly we possess self-belief because of that,” he said. “I think we will write a few headlines.”
McCarthy’s confidence is not far-fetched. The fact is that Ireland, based on their current form and personnel, can realistically reach the quarterfinals. And if they land in the right bracket, the semifinals may not be a pipe dream.
According to the draw, the winners and runners-up in Ireland’s group face the Group B survivors: Spain, Paraguay, Slovenia or South Africa.
Should Ireland win Group E, they’ll face the Group B runners-up, possibly a Paraguayan side whose key player is a hulking goalie named Jose Luis Chilavert, or perhaps a Slovenian team cut from the same cloth as the Balkan teams the Republic has previously tangled with (Yugoslavia, Croatia and Macedonia).
If, on the hand, Roy Kean and Co. finish second in Group E, they will likely meet Spain, the team favored to top Group B. No better than Portugal, Spain would be a winnable proposition.
Now assuming Ireland takes Group E and dispatches their second-round foes, their quarterfinal opponents would be decided between the Group G winner (Italy, Mexico, Croatia, Ecuador) and the Group D runner-up (Poland, Portugal, USA, South Korea).
The alternative is not that too daunting either, since prevailing in the Round of 16 as the Group E runners-up would entail a meeting with the survivors of the encounter between the Group D winners vs. the Group G runners-up.
McCarthy and the Republic have precedence on their side. In their two previous trips to the finals, Ireland have made it out of the first round, and from what were considered tough groups for that matter.
At Italia ’90, where McCarthy wore the captain’s armband, Ireland was drawn with England, Holland and Egypt and tied all three teams to reach the second round, where they outshot Romania 5-4 on penalties.
It took a single goal from the player of the tournament, Italian striker Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, to stop the Shamrock express in the quarterfinals.
And at USA ’94 four years later, Charlton guided Ireland out of a competitive group with the Italians, Mexico and Norway. In the second round, the ubiquitous Dutch pounced on errors by Terry Phelan and goalie Packie Bonner to win 2-0 in Orlando.
This time around, surviving the first round may be the most challenging task that may be asked of McCarthy’s well-tested squad.