Category: Archive

Nation denied just when it needed a morale boost

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

That offers a glimpse of the scale of what was so callously denied us at the Stade de France by the malevolent hand of Thierry Henry. We were defeated 2-1 on aggregate but we lost so much more than that. The last time an Irish side participated in a World Cup, the country was a very different place. The trip to Japan and South Korea was almost a bonus for a people giddy with their new-found wealth and improved personal circumstances. Just one more exotic foreign trip to fit into our packed schedules, somewhere between shopping in New York and arty weekends in Barcelona.
Last week, Giovanni Trapattoni sent out a team playing for the right to give the beleaguered nation a much-needed break, a month-long distraction from the myriad woes that have befallen us since. Against that background, it’s not hard to understand why so many of us have over-reacted to the result. The conspiracy theories that abounded this past seven days have their root in the fact Irish people are growing tired of having the establishment put one over on them.
The ordinary mortgage-payers suffer while the banks get bailed out by NAMA. The Irish team gets cheated while FIFA give the more glamorous and commercially important French a helping hand to punch their ticket to South Africa. A fantastic leap of imagination? Not for a population that feels like it just got kicked while already down. For the umpteenth time this past year or so. The authorities mistreating our football team is in the same vein as the government asking people to take pay cuts while ensuring they remain some of the highest-paid politicians in Europe.
What’s forgotten in all of this too is that we don’t mind losing. Unfortunately, we have plenty of experience of defeat in the international arena. Indeed, few nations have suffered more agony since the introduction of the play-off format for major tournament qualifiers in 1995. The manner of this reverse is what hurts here. Had the game ebbed on into penalties and the French prevailed in that horrible lottery, we would have taken our lumps and limped home knowing there is a certain gallantry in this kind of honorable reverse. There is no such consolation in accepting a terrible sleight of hand became our twist of fate.
Aside from the fact our recent history is pockmarked by dodgy off-sides and disallowed goals then, there is anger too because even those of us with a cursory knowledge of the game realize this group of players deserved more than to lose in this way. They gave us 120 noble minutes of what we love sport to be about and everything we like to believe the Irish team has evinced for decades now.
Disregarding the superior technical quality of the opposition, ignoring the hostile venue and the fact it was very obvious from the initial play-off seedings that FIFA were hoping the more glamorous side qualified, here was a performance blending the old virtues of passion and panache. For a country desperate for inspiration, and sorely lacking that from its elected leaders, it need look no further than the display of 29-year-old Dubliner Keith Andrews. A career journeyman who hasn’t even started 40 Premier League matches, he outplayed and outfought Real Madrid’s midfielder Lassana Diarra.
Conservative estimates reckon Diarra’s weekly wage is ten times that of Andrews yet it was the kid who learned his football at Stella Maris and is still always first choice at Blackburn Rovers that shone on the night. That was only one example of a lesser-ranked Irish player forgetting he was supposed to be an underdog. Kevin Kilbane is an old warrior has shipped more critical flak than just about any Irish international and who has never seen the inside of a Champions’ League game yet how many times did he thunder into Henry and Nicolas Anelka?
Imagine what it would have meant to see this courageous bunch head off to tilt at bigger windmills in South Africa next June. What country would have fancied being drawn in the same group as the team that rattled Italy and humbled the French in Paris? Unfortunately, that’s not an issue now and the worst part is all of this brouhaha will be forgotten by the time the big dance rolls around, and, with no hint of irony, FIFA will announce their various fair play initiatives for the tournament.
Galling as that will be, we should remember this Irish team succeeded in doing something else this week. They made us fall in love with them all over again. As footballers’ wages spiraled out of control and they retreated behind the velvet rope of celebrity in recent years, a chasm grew up between the players and many of the fans. There wasn’t the same warmth or affection in the relationship as in previous eras. Until Wednesday evening.
A nation sat up and watched these men defy odds, punch above their weight and, when it was all over, shed bitter tears. We didn’t need to see Damien Duff weeping to realize that all the barstool arguments about representing the country not meaning so much to this generation had been suddenly rendered moot. Not even FIFA with their prejudices or an increasingly sad and pathetic-sounding Roy Keane making an international fool of himself could deny us that consolation.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese