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Ireland at 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan & South Korea
Prior to the 2002 World Cup finals the Republic of Ireland had only qualified for the finals on two prior occasions and only Jack Charlton had ever led the Irish to the finals of any major competition. With a stunning 1-0 win over the Netherlands in September 2001 at Lansdowne Road (now the Aviva Stadium) Mick McCarthy had virtually assured himself of emulating the former Irish manager's feat.
McCarthy managed the Irish team through a very difficult 2002 World Cup qualifying group that included Holland and Portugal. By finishing runners-up to Portugal on goal difference the Irish entered a two match play-off against Iran. While they lost the second Iran match to a last minute goal qualification had be assured by virtue of a 2-0 win in the home leg at Lansdowne Road.
Trouble Before Departure for Finals
Part of the preparations by the Irish squad for the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea involved participation in Niall Quinn's testimonial match in Sunderland. Roy Keane of Man Utd caused some consternation by choosing not to take part tin the match, the proceeds of which were going to charity, to concentrate on treatment for niggling injuries and to spend some time with his family before heading for the Far East. A successful campaign would mean being separated from his family for month or more. This was a prospect that simply did not appeal to family man Keane.
Elements of the media portrayed this as disunity within the Irish squad despite denials by manager McCarthy. When the Irish football squad assembled in a chaotic Dublin airport it was obvious to all that Roy Keane was in a foul mood even before the squad had departed for the World Cup.
It didn't take long for the tensions to raise to the surface and following a foul-mouthed Roy Keane tirade directed at Republic of Ireland manager the Irish captain was sent home leaving an Irish squad in disarray behind him. The Saipan incident extended for a protracted period beyond the row between Keane and McCarthy as Irish football supporters and the media were divided into opposing camps. In Saipan the Irish squad, the FAI, and ultimately McCarthy were torn over whether Keane should be asked to rejoin the Irish squad. In the end Keane would not return to Saipan and the Irish preparations for the 2002 World Cup group matches had been severely impacted.
Republic of Ireland Group Matches at World Cup 2002
The consequences of the Saipan affair were that the Irish team entered it's first group match in apparent disarray. Expectations were severely dented as the Irish took to the pitch in Niigata's Big Swan Stadium against Cameroon without the one and only truly World class Irish player, Roy Keane. For the first time ever an Irish team took part in a major football tournament with less than full support. Some of those in the Keane camp were stating openly their wish that Ireland would lose and that McCarthy would get his due reward for sending Keane home. This was epitomised by TV football pundit Eamon Dunphy wearing Cameroon colours on RTE television.
Despite a team-bonding huddle before the kick-off Ireland started nervously and Cameroon looked very dominant. It appeared to be very ominous for the Irish when Cameroon took the lead just before half-time. McCarthy earned some grudging respect from some of the Keanites when he turned things around at half-time and an improved performance in the second half saw the Irish earn a well-deserved draw against the African champions.
Next up was Germany and despite falling behind again to an early goal from Klose the Irish battled back to earn another draw through a Robbie Keane goal in the last seconds of the game. It was the only goal that the Germans conceded on the away to the final against Brazil.
With two draws and two points in the group Irish qualification for the last 16 of 2002 World Cup was within their own hands. Any kind of a two goal victory over Saudi Arabia would be enough to see the Republic progress regardless of the result between Germany and Cameroon. Goals from Robbie Keane, Gary Breen, and Damien Duff assured that Ireland qualified for the knock-out stages against Spain.
Penalty Shoot-out Heartbreak for Ireland Against Spain
By qualifying for the last 16 the Republic of Ireland had surpassed all expectations. Even the pro-Roy Keane faction were forced to grudgingly acknowledge that the Irish team had performed admirably in the face of adversity.
One more win and the Irish would emulate their best ever World Cup finals performance - a quarter final appearance in Italia 1990.
For the third time in the 2002 World Cup the Irish fell behind when Morientes scored in the eight minute. Yet again the Irish fought back to equalise late in the match through a Robbie Keane penalty following a foul on Niall Quinn. Despite dominating the two periods of extra time the Irish could not find the winner and a penalty shoot-out ensued.
Three missed Irish penalties meant that Spain proceeded to the quarter finals and the Republic of Ireland squad were heading home to a party in the Phoenix Park in Dublin where 100,000 fans turned out.
2002 World Cup Finals Conclusion
The Republic of Ireland 2002 World Cup adventure had been a real roller coaster ride. The campaign started with great fanfare and excitement as the team left Dublin Airport, endured the Saipan disaster, celebrated qualification for the last 16, and finally suffered the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out exit. Even the matches had their highs and lows. In three matches the Irish were 1-0 down at end of the first half, and on each occasion they fought back to earn a draw - including two last-minute equalisers. It was a campaign that deserved to be celebrated but as well as the McCarthy's Irish squad had performed there will always be the lingering question; How far could the Republic of Ireland squad have gone in the 2002 World Cup finals had the Saipan debacle not occurred and had the magnificent Roy Keane played in the tournament?
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