Sick of Facing World Champions


As Ireland’s stint in the European Champions comes to an end, Daniel Keenanlooks at Ireland’s recent failings against the world champions in soccer and rugby

There aren’t that many similarities with soccer and rugby. They’re both ball games on a grass pitch, which involve scoring, but apart from Balzaratti’s attempted rugby tackle, the two don’t share much common ground. The internet is awash with with comparisons of how players from both sports react to physical contact, normally consisting of a picture of a grizzled rugby player, pouring with blood and held together with tape and manliness, compared to a picture of a lean soccer winger, writhing around on the ground, with one hand holding his shin and the other making sure his hair is in place.  The last few weeks though have seen Irish soccer and rugby share a common enemy: world champions.

The Irish rugby team have been beaten by current world champions New Zealand for the last two Saturdays, while the Irish soccer team were humbled by current world champion, Spain, and former world champions (2006), Italy.

Recent Irish rugby success has seen soccer take a backseat, and for some reason, soccer pundits and fans failed to buckle their seat belt in preparation for the car crash that Euro 2012 was always destined to be. Soccer may be Ireland’s fourth sport in interest and participation terms now; we have always prided ourselves by having players playing in the Premier League or Championship, but we rarely have really top level players. Ireland’s success in the English game is more down to geographical luck than it is raw talent: there are hundreds of unheard of players in the world capable of doing what Glenn Whelan does, but mid-level Premier League and Championship clubs don’t have the resources to scout any further than Great Britain and Ireland, so Glenn Whelan gets a Premier League contract ahead of Glenn Whelanez from Mexico, who’d also need a work permit.

Ireland produce great athletes, but many of the most impressive are tied up in our two national sports, gaelic and hurling. Soccer is in a poor state of health in the country, highlighted by Monaghan United’s withdrawl from the Airtricity League because of financial issues. The pool of players to choose for a national team is limited, and we have a manager who refuses to pick some of the best footballers. Yet Ireland went out to Poland, to a difficult group, with expectation on their back.

It was an unusual expectation, because Ireland were expected to cause an upset. If upsets are expected, are they really upsets? If they’d won, they’d have beaten the odds, yes, but half  of the country would have said they knew it would happen. The idea was that teams would underestimate Ireland and we’d ‘nick’ a result against them. The nation expected more but got less: hopeless and luckless.

The optimism was based on an unbeaten streak against fairly poor opposition, and an extremely lucky draw with Russia. Then there was that famous night in Paris in 2009. Since Ireland should have beaten a poorly managed, poorly disciplined and poor quality French team three years ago, then naturally they were capable of beating the two most recent world champions and a plucky Crotian team, ranked eighth in the world.

The tactics were a failure throughout the tournament. Italy played a high defensive line, knowing that Ireland didn’t have the pace up front to be able to latch onto balls behind the back four. Ireland’s main threat came from counter attacks, when they got the ball into the final third of the pitch, yet they were clearly still instructed to play their usual long ball to nowhere game, even though the Italians had an easy counter to it. The Italian box looked like a moshpit at Oxegen for every Irish free kick, and each one ended in the lob into the box being cleared by the Italian defence.

The Irish soccer team is not as bad as the results show, but nor is it the world beating, Spain-eating, tenacious, spacious playing team that Eamon Dunphy thinks it can be when Wes Hoolihan and Anthony Pilkington get a game. They faced good opposition and lost, there’s no shame in that.

The most positive thing about Ireland’s Euro 2012 journey is we found out that our fans are fantastic. So the football world knows that the Irish can have the craic – not exactly a revelation, but should the atmosphere be re-created for the World Cup qualifiers, and replace the recent dower atmosphere at the Aviva for Irish games, it could prove invaluable for securing qualification.

In New Zealand, the Irish rugby team took a massive swipe at the undisputed best team in the world. It was all round impressive from Ireland, but a last gasp Dan Carter drop goal ended any hopes of an upset, finishing 22-19. Public enemy number one is now the man with the whistle and the funny accent, Nigel Owens, whose questionable decision making in the final scrum cost Ireland a potential draw. The Irish stigma about beating the All Blacks now continues.

To fulfill Gerry Adam’s dream and look at Ireland as one (team, soccer and rugby), the players have faced in the last week, the best play-makers in the game (Dan Carter, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Andrea Pirlo) and the best stoppers (Richie McCaw, Gigi Buffon, Iker Casillas) and lost. We’re a good team, just sick of playing the best.