WE all know about Brian O’Driscoll’s capacity for playing through pain. Not many, though, would put his soccer equivalent in the same bracket.
Robbie Keane… he’s just an overpaid, underperforming prima donna, right?
Not quite. It is a perfect irony that in the week O’Driscoll was hosting a £700-a-head testimonial dinner, Keane was showing up for international duty prepared to perform despite injury.
While Keane is far from the perfect role-model, and has an ego as large as his salary, what few credit him with is his willingness to put his body on the line for his country.
Then again, criticising Keane is a national obsession. He has often been picked upon, either for his cartwheeling celebrations, his questionable decision-making on the pitch, or his career choices off it. O’Driscoll, in contrast, is perceived as an everyman, humble hero. He can do no wrong. Keane, more often than not, can do no right.
Others aren’t as laidback about the issue, though. “Personally, it wrecks my head,” says his friend, Richard Dunne. “Robbie is always getting it in the neck. People saying, ‘Robbie should be dropped, he doesn’t do it for his country’. Look at his record. Who else has done what he has for Ireland?”
And the answer is nobody. His 54 international goals is not just a British and Irish record, but places him 26th in the history of international football, ahead of Bobby Charlton, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Cristiano Ronaldo and Johan Cruyff.
It’s a fair enough point that a large percentage of those 54 goals have come via friendlies, 20 to be precise, and another nine against European minnows like Malta, San Marino, The Faroe Islands and Andorra. But the other competitive goals have been against respectable opposition in competitive internationals. And of those, 22 have been equalisers, lead goals or winners, just one of which came when Ireland lost.
Plus, for all the talk about his failure to score at club level, Keane is actually the 11th highest scorer in the history of the Premier League, his 123 goals from a decade in England’s top flight putting him above Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in the pecking order.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” says Quinn. “Robbie has been outstanding for his country. By a country mile he is the best striker we have ever produced and for me, he is one of, possibly the best players, too.”
And yet Keane remains a persistent receiver of flak, partially because of his sometimes dour public persona — partially due to the number of wasted experiments he has tried in attacking areas on the pitch — and partially because of some old-fashioned jealousy.
Of all the analysis of Keane’s career over the years, his wages have frequently been used as a stick to beat him with — only in Ireland, though, never in England. “If people want to give out about me, let them,” Keane says. “I’m happy with the person I am.”That person has been re-energised by life in America. “The glass is always half full with people in LA,” he says. “It’s refreshing.”
So too has been his change of club. With the Galaxy, he has won two Championships and is now their ‘face’, with his image plastered across most influential city on America’s west coast.
“Having a high profile doesn’t bother me either way,” he said. “I don’t need to be rolling around red carpets. There is stuff that we have to go to. As for the family, it’s a great lifestyle. The fact that people are always 100 per cent behind you, that they want people to do well, is great. I didn’t leave England because of negativity. I left because I had a choice of playing here or at a middle of the table Premier League side where I’d be playing just for the sake of playing and chasing, trying to get the Carling Cup or FA Cup which at the moment is kind of impossible when you’ve got the big four or five around. America was just right for me.”
Down the line, he intends returning to Ireland and basing himself in Malahide, where his wife is from, and within touching distance of his family. Both Ireland, the country, and Ireland, the team, burn deep into his soul.
“I’m very fortunate with the career I’ve had already. I’ve been to a World Cup and a European Championship. That means the world to me to have done that. “But we want to go there again and to reach another finals now with the squad of players that we have, a fairly young squad, unknown players, would be amazing. Back in 2002 everybody knew who we were because a lot of us were playing in the Premier League at the time. You had the likes of Quinny and Stan who had been around forever too. So for these young players, it would be a great achievement to get there. But it’s going to be tough. Sweden and Austria are moving well.”
And Ireland aren’t, making you wonder why Keane still bothers with the trans-Atlantic flights when deep down, he (and we) know that qualification is always more of a possibility than probability.
He explains: “I love playing for my country, I think that’s fairly clear to see. Listen, if my legs were gone or I wasn’t good enough, I wouldn’t be here. I’m not naïve and stupid enough to ever think that I’m going to carry on forever but at the moment I feel great and if I don’t get too many injuries, I’ll play on as long as I can.”