THE PHRASE ‘only playing for pride’ is a strange one. When does an international team play for any other reason?
Ireland’s footballing pride suffered possibly its gravest blow (though it will take a lot to top Cyprus) a year ago when we lost 6-1 to tonight’s opponent’s Germany. This game is about restoring our self-esteem as a soccer nation.
To achieve that, Ireland have to be true to the culture and history of Irish soccer.
There have been dark days. Ireland have been many things over the decades: boring hoofers, poorly prepared and amateurish, overly defensive and rigidly conservative.
What they have rarely been is a soft touch; a brittle outfit you can dance around and pass straight through; a side where the opposition have stopped worrying about the result by half-time and began instead to consider the potential goal difference benefits.
Teams looked ahead at an Ireland fixture and groaned. Whatever about our talent-to-journeymen ratio, they knew a hard-running, bruising game was waiting for them. They also knew that we possessed just about enough flair to get a goal, and scoring two against us was a mission.
Giovanni Trapattoni, for all of his dull, horrific, unambitious football and pronouncements that it was the result that mattered and not the style, lost the plot in this regard. On his watch we became a soft touch to the top sides. The Euro 2012 nightmare – 3-1, 4-0, 2-0 – was compounded by the Germanic bludgeoning a few months later.
All the talk of being a “small nation” and having “no history of success” and “gulf in class” only served to reinforce an inferiority complex that culminated in supplication to the Swedens and Austrias of this world.
Who can be sure? Perhaps Trapattoni was right and our current generation of players are not capable of anything further than trying to get in the way and then nicking a goal from a set piece.
A quick glance at the respective likely starters for tonight tells you everything you need to know about the difference in quality.
Just take the midfield trios for example – Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Ozil versus Gibson, Whelan and McCarthy. We’re unlikely to win the possession or passes completed stats.
In a few hours I could be proved hopelessly naïve, but I think we can compete.
Maybe Germany are as billed: footballing genius after footballing genius, assembled fresh from the world’s most efficient production line, now with added flair to the traditional poise and resolution, ready to dominate Europe in soccer as well as economics.
I don’t really buy it.
If you stand off any decent side, they will look amazing. That’s what Ireland did in October 2012.
If they get in their faces this evening and then, when we do have the ball, follow Brian Kerr’s old maxim of “pass it to a green shirt” then things will be a hell of lot better.
Our midfield trio will not be in the shakeup for Champions League medals at the season’s end, but they aren’t bad by any means. They’re all capable of picking out a pass, putting in a tackle and taking up sensible offensive and defensive positions.
International teams represent the characteristics of that nation. Unfortunately they represent the worst as well as the best traits: hence the conservatism and fear that has informed much of our play.
However, the Irish are also a resourceful and imaginative bunch. They have scant regard for long odds or hopeless causes. If anything, once the task is daunting, they are freed from the fear of failure. Failure is expected anyway, so you might as well go down swinging. And who are you to call us failures? Defiance bordering on spite … I’m not sure if it’s positive trait but it has fired many an Irish success story.
I don’t think Germany will score six goals tonight. Perhaps half that number, but I’m putting my money on two.
I’m not sure Ireland have the firepower to score. I reckon we’ll have a few shots on target and, freed from Trap’s dead hand, our players will show that they can in fact play football and have it in them to be more than training cones for Germany to step around on their fast waltz to Rio.
The days of being told we are no good by an overpaid over-the-hill Italian are over. This is about us getting back to what we have been for the majority of our history: A small football nation, but a proud one.