Avoiding the controversial incidents of last week’s World Cup playoff, Ryan Mackenzie focuses on the positive outlook for this Irish side
Last Wednesday night the world watched on as one of football’s most highly respected stars stole World Cup qualification from an Irish side that had outplayed their opponents and deserved a place in South Africa next summer. A double handball by French captain Thierry Henry was unfortunately missed by Swedish referee Martin Hansson.
After days of Irish appeal, it’s clear that a replay between the sides will not take place, due largely to stern opposition from both FIFA and the French Football Federation, so the topic has drawn to a close. The terrific – and for most Irish fans, moving – performance by Ireland can now be appreciated without the overshadowing controversy.
Prior to the contest in Stade de France, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men could do little to avoid scrutiny from Irish fans, who had become deeply disillusioned and embittered by their team’s failure to emulate the great and swashbuckling Irish sides of the past. It seemed to many that Ireland’s participation in the 2002 World Cup marked the end of what was undoubtedly a golden era.
However, the spectacle last Wednesday evening has revitalised Irish football. Despite the initial overwhelming sense of disappointment felt by Irish players and fans alike, the unexpected brilliance of the boys in green has returned a pride in our team.
Prior to kick-off, it seemed highly improbable for Ireland to achieve the daunting task of even scoring a goal against a side who still rank amongst the world’s best. It wasn’t long before those doubts began to dissolve, however, as Ireland looked impressive from the start.
Ireland proved to be up to the challenge of the Stade de France crowd, and in the 33rd minute Robbie Keane made the breakthrough, coolly slotting away a wonderful pass by Damien Duff from eight yards out to level the tie at 1-1 on aggregate. The response of the players and the devout Irish fans who made the trip to Paris, represented the sentiments of the whole nation – pure ecstasy.
As the match progressed, it appeared as though a historic result was possible. Trapattoni did not hold his team back to simply retain what they had achieved. Instead they surged forward creating numerous goal opportunities, silencing the French crowd who looked on in disbelief as their team were made to look second best.
While evidently exhausted as the match progressed into extra time, the heroic Irishmen continued to give heart and soul for their country. It was this combination of superiority and passion that made the nature of Henry’s shameful handball, and our ensuing departure from the World Cup, even more painfully hard to bear.
Despite the obvious disappointment of being denied a momentous and deserved victory that would have sent us to just our fourth World Cup, it is important to focus on the positives of such a performance. For the first time since our last World Cup appearance in 2002, our national side has demonstrated an ability to compete with the best in world football. We can now look forward to a realistic chance of making the trip to Eastern Europe for Euro 2012 with a rejuvenated team, an established manager and a nation of supporters.