Ireland’s last match at a World Cup showed what might have been for Irish football 4 years ago

Ireland’s last match at a World Cup showed what might have been for Irish football

"Irishmen just don't go home early," Peter Drury exclaimed on ITV as Robbie Keane slotted a last-minute penalty past Iker Casillas.

The commentator continued to clumsily reference stereotypes as Keane tumbled at the corner-flag, and Irish substitutes, coaching staff and fans in Suwon celebrated.


"If there's a party, they want to be there. Try getting them out of the door. Get 'em in boys!"

As always, Barry Davies' description was more befitting of such a significant moment. "The Irish have done it again," the BBC commentator remarked, focusing on the fact that the Republic of Ireland had, yet again, pinned back an elite opponent. For the second time in the 2002 World Cup, and for the sixth time in the campaign, they were not only undefeated against one of the best sides in the world, they had been the better team.

Ireland went on to lose on penalties, but the match against Spain in 2002, the country's last game at a World Cup, still serves as a missed opportunity and an example of what might have been for Irish football.


Ireland were optimistic heading into the game in South Korea. They had recovered as much as feasibly possible from the exit of their captain and best player, Roy Keane, before the tournament, and advanced through a testing group. After falling behind to first-half goals against Cameroon and Germany, the team rallied to score equalisers and finished both matches on the front foot.

Needing a two-goal win against Saudi Arabia to secure their place in the last-16, Ireland scored three and advanced in style, with Damien Duff and Robbie Keane impressing.

Spain had brilliant players such as Raul, Luis Enrique and Juan Carlos Valerón, but they weren't yet the team that would dominate world football between 2008 and 2012. They were beatable and cautious of the threat posed by Ireland, altering their side to cope with Ireland's threat up-front. Miguel Ángel Nadal, the former Barcelona defender and uncle of tennis great Rafael, who was nicknamed The Beast, was dropped.


According to Mick McCarthy, the Spain manager José Antonio Camacho "paid Ireland the highest compliment possible" by omitting the 35-year-old central defender.

"He has changed his team to cope with the pace of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. How the times are changing."

Camacho's decision was instantly justified. In the second minute, Robbie Keane and Kevin Kilbane linked-up down Ireland's left-hand side, breaking away as the Spanish defence scrambled to get back into position. With Duff and Kilbane sprinting into the penalty area, Keane opted to go it alone.


The Leeds United striker nutmegged Carles Puyol and curled an effort from the edge of the box that went just beyond Casillas' far post.

Spain were right to be fearful of Duff's pace and Keane's trickery. The pair played with such swagger that they would not have looked out in place in a red jersey on the night. Keane was just 21 and his career had already been eventful. The Dubliner had been involved in transfers worth £31m.

In August 1999, he became the most expensive teenager in British football history when Coventry City paid Wolverhampton Wanderers £6m for him. A year later, after an impressive debut season in the Premier League, the Tallaght-native moved to Inter Milan for £13m, joining a squad that contained Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Christian Vieri and Laurent Blanc.


Marcello Lippi, Inter's manager and future World Cup winner, called Keane the best young player he had seen that summer. Lippi was sacked after the first match of the Serie A season and his successor, Marco Tardelli, wasn't as keen on Robbie.

He joined Leeds a few months later, and hadn't been in good club form going into the World Cup, scoring just three Premier League goals in the 2001/02 season. But his class shined through in the Far-East, when he came of age after a tough spell.

"What sets him apart from others is his ability to do something unexpected. He can get the other side of centre halves in such a way that sometimes I'd have to watch it in slow motion on video to see what he's done. There are times when he's beaten a player and I'm thinking: 'Was that luck? Did the defender try to kick him and miss?' Then I'd see the sublime touches that get him the other side of people and realise it's just sheer ability" -  Mark McGhee, Keane's former manager at Wolves.

Keane scored three of Ireland's six goals at the World Cup, and wasn't intimidated by opponents from Barcelona and Real Madrid. He was comfortable on international football's biggest stage.

The opening 10 minutes set the tone for the entire match. Ireland were dangerous on the break but surrendered soft chances. Neither side showed much concern about trying to control proceedings and it was an entertaining spectacle.

Spain had yet to put into practice the possession-based game that would dominate world football. They were happy to go along with the end-to-end, helter-skelter nature of the match and were caught offside nine times in the opening 45 minutes alone. Ireland were "dicing with death", as the ITV commentator put it.

For the third match at the tournament, McCarthy's team went behind in the first-half. After eight minutes, Barcelona teammates Puyol and Luis Enrique combined to set-up Fernando Morientes at the near post to head home.

Kilbane was out of position to block Puyol's cross and Morientes' movement saw him get a run on Gary Breen to head past Shay Given, who was rooted to his goal line.

There was potential for a Spanish rout. They had scored nine goals in the group stages and were one of the favourites for the tournament after the series of surprising group-stage exits. But Raul and his club-mate Morientes were both withdrawn before the final whistle in normal time for David Albelda and Gaizka Mendieta respectively. Spain substituted their two strikers for two midfielders as they sought to hang on against Ireland.

Mick McCarthy's side had more possession (53%) and more shots (17 to 11) - Spain just edged the passing accuracy (77% to 74%) - and Ireland's young stars also had the edge up-front.

Duff was the best player on the pitch, the country's best performer at the tournament and one of the most exciting players in the world.

Early in the second-half, when he brought Niall Quinn on for Gary Kelly, McCarthy switched the Blackburn Rovers star back to his natural position on the wing, and Duff flourished.

The 23-year-old dribbled at Spanish full-back Juanfran and forced him into making a desperate lunge.

Anders Frisk correctly awarded a penalty and Ireland had a lifeline, a reward for their hard-work since falling behind. Spain were rattled by Duff.

It was now up to Ian Harte to dispatch it. Harte had been substituted in each of Ireland's games, unable to show the form that had made him an ever-present in McCarthy's team. He was one of the few players in the Ireland side with experience at such a high level, having featured in a Champions League semi-final with Leeds two-years previously.

Harte wasn't the quickest, but he possessed wonderful technique and was a dead-ball specialist. Inter Milan were among the clubs mentioned with a possible move for him ahead of the tournament. He was a talented player, much better than his three performances at the tournament had suggested.

The Drogheda full-back had already scored nine goals for Ireland when he picked up the ball to take the penalty against Spain.

After an underwhelming tournament, this was Harte's opportunity to make amends and get Ireland back into the game, to score the goal their efforts against Spain warranted.

"I can't run flat out because my foot goes numb," Harte told Dion Fanning in The Sunday Independent during an interview published on the morning of the game.

The Leeds full-back was carrying an injury at the tournament, playing with a trapped nerve in his foot and in some discomfort. His injury was so debilitating that it hindered how he took set-pieces.

"Ok, you've got the adrenalin rush because of a free-kick or something, but it affects the way you're running because you have to keep pulling your toe back and cracking the bone. Then it comes again and you're forever thinking about your foot more than you're thinking about the ball. It's difficult."

Every footballer has played with a niggling injury, it's part of the game at all levels. Sadly for Harte, his injury restricted his main attacking attribute and came at the World Cup. It would have been impossible to expect him to withdraw himself from selection ahead of the match. That responsibility lay with McCarthy and the management team, who were aware that their left-back was unlikely to complete the entire game.

McCarthy preserved with Harte, possibly out of a sense of loyalty, and kept him on set-piece duty with his injury - a decision as perplexing and costly as Kilbane's follow-up to the penalty.

However, with Duff in the team, Ireland still had a chance.

Gaizka Mendieta had joined Lazio from Valencia for €47m the previous summer and was one of the most expensive footballers in history at the time.

When he came on against Ireland, his job was to help Juanfran defensively as Spain doubled-up on Duff. Spain were petrified of the winger.

"We were young, we were fearless, I think that's half the battle when you were a kid. You go in and just grab the bull by the horns," Duff told SportsJOE when reflecting on Ireland's World Cup campaign 16-years later.

"I remember us dominating (against Spain and Germany), but I don't think you can compare them to the teams now."

Even in 2002, Duff was a throwback. A nimble, skilful and intelligent winger, who spent most of his free time sleeping, Duff came alive with the ball at his feet and was a nightmare for opposition full-backs. His modest, understated demeanour was the antithesis of the hype and celebrity engulfing football.

In June 2002 he was one of the most exciting young attacking players in the world, a footballer who made you move to the edge of your seat every time he got the ball.

"They (Duff and Keane) can give their all and not be dragged down by the devil on the shoulder saying, 'You're not good enough, son'. There are players who fall to that devil. Lots of players. But these two have no idea that anything like that even exists. It's frightening. They just march straight through everything" - Niall Quinn.

"I have played with some brilliant players during my career, but I've never seen a talent like Damien Duff. Gazza was special and Juninho was a little box of tricks, but neither had the explosive skills that Damien possesses," Craig Hignett, Duff's former Blackburn teammate.

Against Spain in Suwon, Duff was the best of a solid bunch of Irish players. There was a blend of veterans and young talent. Steve Staunton and Niall Quinn remained from the Italia 90 World Cup squad, Duff and Keane were the rising stars, and there were experienced Premier League players such as Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella.

They weren't all world-beaters, but the majority of Ireland's squad played in the English top-flight, something that would become less and less common as the decade went on.

"All of them played in the Premier League and they played in some good teams," Didi Hamann, who played against Ireland for Germany in a group stage game, told SportsJOE.

"Obviously, Roy was one of them but in the end didn’t play, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Steve Finnan was my teammate at the time, Kilbane, Quinn, players who were regulars in the Premier League which unfortunately in this team isn’t the case. We had huge respect (for the Irish team)... they scored late but they probably deserved to on the day."

As they had against Germany, Ireland finished the 90-minutes strongly and kept pushing for the goal their efforts deserved.

And just like against Germany, Ireland's chance came from a Steve Finnan diagonal ball to Quinn.

Fernando Hierro almost pulled the forward's shirt off his back and Ireland had a stoppage-time penalty.

With Harte now off the pitch, the responsibility fell on Keane to take the kick. The striker had been a livewire throughout, showing the alertness that would see him score 68 times for Ireland. A street footballer, excellent at finding space, utilising close control, capitalising on errors and taking his chances, the prospect of playing against defenders from Real Madrid and Barcelona didn't faze Keane in any way whatsoever.

It was like he was back playing on the streets of Dublin, rather than up against Ivan Helguera and Hierro. Keane dispatched the stoppage-time penalty as though he was still playing for Crumlin United.

Ireland had the initiative going into extra-time and their illustrious opponents were reeling. Juanfran was on a yellow card and up against a player in the form of his life, Hierro and Helguera were struggling to cope with the aerial threat of Quinn and the craft of Keane and they had withdrawn Raul and Morientes. Spain were also down to 10-men, as Albelda was forced off injured and the team had no substitutions left.

They were on the ropes, weary and drained, clinging on for a penalty shoot-out as Ireland pushed for the Golden Goal.

There's nothing new to say about the incident in Saipan which saw Ireland lose their captain, but the last-16 match against Spain was evidence of how important to the team he was. The game was crying out for a midfielder to control proceedings. Shots were rushed, passes often overhit and, as the match went on, Ireland resorted to playing long to find the equaliser as Spain retreated. Neither side had someone prepared to try to dictate play.

Xavi, who would become the embodiment of Spain's possession-based idea of play, the key player in their dominant years, was just 22 at the time and sitting on the bench, with five caps to his name. Keane was at home in Manchester.

In their absence, the match was frantic and disjointed from the first whistle to the last.

"The Spain team, they weren’t one of the great teams – we dominated them and went out on penalties. But, looking at it from another point of view, Roy dominates dressing rooms, and people were in fear of Roy. Not me, not Robbie, he looked after us, we were young, we were fearless – but even at Man United, people were in fear of him. I think, maybe, when he left, it let lads breathe. So, we’ll never know, yeah unbelievable, he could have driven us on to the final, but also other players that played well, might not have played as well because Roy was barking down their neck for 90 minutes." - Damien Duff.

Keane's absence may have liberated some players who struggled to cope with his high demands and intensity. Yet, those same qualities were what dragged them to the finals in Asia. Without him, they performed admirably, bloodied the nose of elite teams and stars such as Keane and Duff were still brilliant. With him in the team, Ireland would surely have completed the job against Spain.

It was later reported that the Irish players weren't told that their opponents only had 10 players in extra-time. If this is true, it's difficult not to think of Manchester United's captain, who was walking his dog as Ireland laid siege to the Spain goal. A failure to capitalise on advantages on the night struck at the heart of Keane's grievances with McCarthy.

Small details would prove key in deciding victory. Small details mattered, as Keane warned when he took issue with Ireland players eating cheese sandwiches in the hotel before Ireland played The Netherlands at the start of the World Cup qualification campaign. Or when he complained about the condition of the training pitch in Saipan.

The same adherence to small details that Keane sought may have seen Ireland get over the line against Spain, and possibly past South Korea in the quarter-finals.

The decision to persist with an injured player on set-pieces cost Ireland in regular time. The tactic of going long to Quinn, rather than trying to get Duff on the ball at every available opportunity, continued in extra-time and was arguably flawed. Spain's left-back had been booked and was one clumsy challenge away from a red card. McCarthy's decision to bring on David Connolly was also questionable when Steven Reid, Jason McAteer and Clinton Morrison were on the bench. He opted for Connolly because "nobody has trained better than David over the past month."

In his World Cup diary, McCarthy also called the penalty shoot-out a "lottery", which it certainly wasn't. Penalties are a test of nerve and skill under intense pressure. McCarthy's fatalistic view of penalties was reflected in how Ireland chose the takers.

"Now, who wants to take a penalty? Robbie, so confident from the spot half an hour earlier, puts his hand up straight away. So does Mattie, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane, followed by Steve Finnan."

Quinn and Kinsella had scored penalties in a play-off final a few years previously, and Duff was in the form of his life. Yet, McCarthy went with Connolly, Kilbane and Holland because they volunteered. Ireland had the advantage of shooting first - 60% of sides who go first win penalty shootouts - but only Keane and Finnan scored their penalties. Given didn't dive the right way for any of Spain's penalties, suggesting he wasn't briefed on which side his opponents were likely to kick.

Mendieta's decisive kick crawled over the line, a poor penalty that summed-up just how fortunate Spain had been.

In the cruellest manner possible, against a talented but fallible team, Ireland had lost a match they had effectively dominated. It had been a tournament of shocks, but it wouldn't have been a surprise for Ireland beat Spain and then South Korea in quarter-finals. With Roy Keane in the team, it's not too outlandish to say Ireland could have reached the final.

Holders France crashed out in group stages, as did Argentina. Portugal, who had reached the semi-finals of Euro 2000 two years previously, also didn't make it out of their group. In the last-16, Italy exited in extremely controversial circumstances against co-hosts South Korea who, along with Turkey, reached the semi-finals. The USA got to the quarter-finals and Germany got to the final. This wasn't a vintage tournament.

According to South American football expert Tim Vickery, the top players, and therefore the best teams, were burnt out going into the competition.

"Asia’s first World Cup... was staged a couple of weeks earlier than usual to dodge the rainy season in Japan and South Korea. There was, therefore, less time to shake off the wearying effects of the European club season – which had just got longer with the extension of the Champions League. This helps explain why 2002 was such a strange tournament, full of surprise results, high on drama but low on quality. Those who had played through the season were out of gas."

Brazil, thanks to the brilliance of Ronaldo, would eventually be crowned champions against an ordinary Germany side, but the 2002 World Cup was the most open international competition of recent times and the opportunity for greater success was there for Ireland.

However, despite the brilliance of Duff and Keane and the astonishing efforts of the team, they couldn't get past Spain. At the time, Irish fans could console themselves with the thought that this was just beginning of a new journey. With Keane and Duff, a stable squad, emerging players such as Richard Dunne and John O'Shea, and the possible re-inclusion of Roy Keane, the future looked promising. Crucially, Ireland were also seeded first for Euro 2004 qualification. This should have been the beginning of a new era of Ireland regularly competing on the biggest stage, but the country has never been back to the World Cup.

Watching Duff and Keane on that night in Suwon, it would have been difficult to imagine that neither player would reach another World Cup. By the time they got to another international tournament - Euro 2012 - both were in the autumn of their careers and unable to have the impact they had a decade previously. Ireland had also regressed, while the opposition improved.

The Irish team in 2002 got the better of two elite sides. 10 years later they struggled to get the ball off the same teams. Spain hammered Ireland 4-0 in the group stages at the Euros. A few months later in Dublin, Germany put six past them in a World Cup qualifier. In 2018, Ireland struggles to get out of its own half against the top teams.

The sport changed and evolved while Irish football stood still and the best years of a team were wasted due to incompetence - Staunton's reign manager - and near-misses - Brian Kerr's tenure and the Thierry Henry handball.

Ireland’s last match at a World Cup showed what might have been for Irish football in the years following 2002. This was the Irish team at its best, even without its best player. They were fearless and aggressive, hard-working and skilful with a dash of flair from Duff. They were capable of taking the game to elite opponents and outplaying them. That should have been the norm following the tournament, it should have the beginning of a successful decade for the national team.

Instead, rather than being the start of a new era, the Spain defeat would prove the high point of the team and Ireland haven't been back to a World Cup since.