By Jay Mwamba
Ireland’s brave World Cup odyssey came to a heart-wrenching end in Suwon, South Korea, last Sunday at the hands of 21-year-old Spanish goalie Iker Casillas, who defied the Republic in a nail-biting 3-2 penalty-kick loss.
Casillas dashed Irish hopes of a quarterfinal berth with a huge penalty save from Ian Harte during regulation time in the titanic second-round match that ended 1-1 after 120 minutes, and made two more stops in the ensuing shootout.
In yet another Ireland match that came to a heart-stopping climax, Robbie Keane, he of the last-second heroics, scored from a second spot kick in the 90th minute to tie the game and force sudden death extra time.
Keane, who’s also 21, would outfox Casillas again with the Republic’s first penalty in the shootout. But a Matt Holland miss and two stops by Casillas from poor efforts by Dave Connolly and Kevin Kilbane brought the Irish World Cup quest to a grinding halt, even after Steve Finnan had converted his shot.
Shay Given — inspired at age 14 to become a goalkeeper after watching Packie Bonner star in the penalty victory over Romania that took Ireland to the quarterfinals of Italia ’90 — made no saves as Fernando Hierro, Ruben Baraja, and Gaizka Mendieta tallied for the Spaniards.
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For Mick McCarthy, who captained the 1990 squad and was hoping to return to the quarterfinals as coach, the cruel manner of Ireland’s loss produced a mixture of emotions.
“I am very proud of my players. We didn’t deserve to lose, we deserved to win in normal time. It’s sickening,” McCarthy said.
“You saw us all together [before the penalties],” he added. “I told them whatever happened there would be no recriminations. We have had a wonderful World Cup. I have nothing but admiration for those players.”
Casillas credited luck for the Spanish victory.
“We know we didn’t rise to the occasion but we had luck with the penalties and in the end we [were] fortunate to go forward,” the goalie remarked.
Indeed, for most of the warm night, before some 39,000 fans in the Suwon World Cup Stadium, Ireland seemed to have a slight edge in an absorbing match once Fernando Morientes’s glancing header from Carles Puyol’s teasing cross had put Spain ahead in the 8th minute.
Caught napping, the Irish defense would tighten up and despite the predatory reputation of the Spanish attack led by Real Madrid’s Raul, Given would not be beaten again until the shootout.
Playing a more compact, short passing game than in any of their three Group E matches, Ireland dominated possession but could neither provide any consistent service to Keane, nor break down the Spanish defense anchored by veteran Fernando Hierro.
With Damien Duff kept at bay, the Spaniards were not given any palpitations until the 43rd minute when Keane, his back to the Casillas, failed to hook a lob from Holland past the goalie.
At the rear, the backline of skipper Steve Staunton — who was later subbed for Kenny Cunningham — Harte, Gary Breen and Finnan gave a clinic in how to employ the offside trap.
The trap, however, was not sprung a minute after resumption when Raul put Morientes through, leading to a brave point-blank save by Given from the latter.
Moments later, Kilbane had a shot cleared off the line by Hierro after Casillas had dropped a high cross from Harte.
McCarthy summoned Niall Quinn off the bench for Gary Kelly to provide much-needed support for the often isolated Keane (55th).
The impact was almost immediate as gaps opened up in the Spanish defense in response to the threat posed by the towering Quinn. Duff utilized the new space to cut into the box, where he was scythed down by Juanfran (63rd) to win a penalty.
Ireland’s deadball specialist, Harte, stepped forward to take the spot kick, but his left-footed drive lacked both venom and deception, and Casillas dove right to block it. Kilbane put the rebound wide.
Ireland had one more scare, in the 71st minute, before the pendulum once more swung their way. With the defense struggling to clear a long, bouncing ball, Raul reacted by tapping a close-range effort forward, but Given was equal to the task, sticking out his right foot to clear.
Raul went off for Luque and Connolly replaced Harte as McCarthy went with four strikers in a bid to get that elusive equalizer.
It nearly came in the 84th minute, and was almost a replay of Keane’s last-gasp strike against the Germans on June 5.
There was a Quinn flick-on, Keane ran onto the ball and tried to lob it over the goalie, but Casillas dashed out to make a vital block.
One final desperate attack and a long ball into the box with the game in the 90th minute resulted in a penalty as Swedish referee Anders Frisk caught Hierro manhandling Quinn in a tussle for the high ball.
Hierro got a yellow card and Keane got a second bite at the Spanish apple, placing a perfect ball to Casillas’s left, before the goalie could move a muscle.
Ireland had the edge in the sudden death extra time, which, unawares to them, Spain played with 10 men after losing one of their three substitutes, David Albelda, to injury.
Keane playing off Quinn brilliantly, could have won it for Ireland when he fired another flick-on from the big forward wide in the third minute. On the other end, Given kept his side alive with an excellent save from Baraja.
The vocal Irish contingent in the enthused crowd sang “Come on Ye Boys in Green” as the two teams picked their penalty shooters.
The Irish squad, bonded into one unit with arms over each other’s shoulders, had reason to cheer when Keane converted the first penalty. So did Hierro in reply.
Then Holland’s shot clipped the bar and ricocheted into the pitch dark Suwon sky while Baraja beat Given. Casillas’s save from Connolly looked fatal until Juanfran shot wide.
More cardiac-inducing drama would follow when Kilbane, too, was denied before Valeron went wide as well.
The pressure was now on Finnan to score and keep Ireland alive. He did, shifting the onus onto Given to deny Mendieta and force another round of penalties. Mendieta’s shot was soft and true as Given dove right.
Later, McCarthy would say penalties had never been in the equation during the squad’s training.
“Practicing penalties is garbage,” he said. “You stand up and take them and it’s all about whether you fancy it on the night.”
Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho had a go at referee Frisk, criticizing the offside decisions and saying the match should have been settled before Keane’s 90th minute penalty equalizer.
“We had three or four opportunities and the referee blew for offside,” he said. “I’m not sure they were offside and I don’t think the final penalty [Keane’s] was a penalty.
“The Irish put on a lot of pressure, but we should have resolved this before the end of 90 minutes.”
Ireland: Shay Given, Steve Finnan, Ian Harte (David Connolly 82), Steve Staunton (Kenny Cunningham 50), Gary Breen, Gary Kelly (Niall Quinn 55), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane.
Spain: Iker Casillas, Juanfran, Carles Puyol, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Helguera, Ruben Baraja, Javi De Pedro (Gaizka Mendieta 66), Juan Valeron, Luis Enrique, Gonzalez Raul (Albert Luque 80), Fernando Morientes (David Albelda 72).