By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — While the prospect of a World Cup playoff next month against possibly Iran, the United Arab Emirates or Uzbekistan is a logistical nightmare for soccer’s world governing body FIFA, Ireland are entitled to take a time out from the ifs, buts and maybes of ultimate qualification for the finals to reflect on a job well done.
Not that last Saturday’s comfortable victory over Cyprus at Lansdowne Road made any difference to the outcome of Group 2, as Portugal secured their automatic spot in next year’s tournament in Japan and South Korea by thrashing Estonia 5-0. However, a second place by the Irish in such a demanding group is an impressive achievement.
Consider these statistics for a moment. A grand total of 24 points, the same as the Portuguese, who booked their journey by dint of a superior goal difference. That total was more than England, Russia, Denmark, Poland, Italy and Spain managed in winning their respective groups and qualifying automatically.
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Of all the second-place teams in the nine European zone qualifying groups, the Irish were by some way the best. And not so long ago, that best second-place team would have been granted a place in the finals, though not for this tournament, as both the host nations, Japan and South Korea, have been offered automatic qualification.
So, undefeated in every game, with mighty Holland in the slipstream, manager Mick McCarthy and his players have to contemplate two playoff games against the third-best team from the Asian groups. The opposition won’t be decided until later this month, but either Iran or Uzbekistan, both affected in different ways by the turmoil in the Middle East, could emerge as the country to face Ireland.
The Irish governing body, the FAI, has already said it has begun preparations for the first leg of those playoffs in Dublin on Nov. 10. However, the second leg, which is scheduled for Nov. 15 is much more problematic. There is the possibility that the game could be played at a neutral venue. However, Ireland’s opponents will surely resist such a scenario.
More worrying, a compromise — in the guise of a one-game playoff at a neutral venue — could be struck, but McCarthy and the FAI would definitely be against a plan of that nature, being of the opinion that a conventional two-leg playoff would enable the Irish to assert their superiority.
With a first-ever qualification for a major finals in McCarthy’s five years in charge so tantalizingly close, there is at least no shortage of confidence in the team. Once Ian Harte scored in the opening minutes, the result against Cyprus was never in doubt. Even without Robbie Keane and Jason McAteer, who were rested because each had already accumulated one yellow card, Ireland were never under any undue pressure, finishing the job with goals by Niall Quinn, David Connolly and Roy Keane.
Coming on his 35th birthday, Quinn’s headed effort was particularly signifcant as it broke Frank Stapleton’s longstanding international goal-scoring record. The center forward’s 21st strike came courtesy of a perfect Kevin Kilbane cross in the 11th minute.
“I’ve had a long career, many great days, many hard days, but it was up there with anything I’d done for Ireland,” Quinn said. “I’d love to go to the finals, but I’m going to have to come up with another goal or two naturally. I’ll speak to Mick further on. I can’t look as far ahead as some of the other players.”
As for McCarthy, whose managerial career has been so far blotted by two failures in playoffs to qualify for the finals of major tournaments, he was prepared to wait for FIFA’s ruling.
“They’ve got to be guided by events around the world,” he said. “It’s not for them to make the decision just yet. The feeling is good now after our performances in the group, but we have to qualify. If we don’t, it’s back to square one with the criticism and that’s the way it is, that’s pressure.”
With no player suspended and with only fullback Steve Carr out through injury, McCarthy will at least have close enough to a full hand to deal from once the playoff conundrum is decided. Manager and players have done superbly well to reach this stage — they surely won’t blow it this time.
Since the days of Jack Charlton and USA ’94, soccer life has been more bad than good for Irish supporters. This just might be a turning point.
IRELAND: Given; Finnan, Breen, Staunton, Harte; Kennedy, Roy Keane, Holland, Kilbane; Connolly, Quinn. Subs: Carsley for Kennedy, 64 mins.; Morrison for Quinn, 68 mins.; McPhail for Kilbane, 84 mins.