Ireland has little soccer history, and what little history it has is heartbreak. They missed the 2010 World Cup on the Thierry Henry handball goal against France. They had similar playoff losses qualifying for Euro 1996, the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. They finished three points off the playoff in 2004 and one point off in 2006. This time Ireland qualified and they hope to continue the trend. The Irish have reached the knockout stages of their last three major tournaments.
Qualification: Ireland finished second in qualifying Group B, two points behind leaders Russia. They beat Estonia 5-1 in the second-place playoff to earn their tournament place. Since Nov. 2010, the Irish have a 10-1-5 record and have outscored opponents 29-8. The one loss came in a friendly against Uruguay in March 2011.
Coach: The Irish are coached by 73-year-old Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni. He has accrued a fair bit of experience with managerial stints at AC Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Benfica and Italy among other stops. He has won 10 league titles, a European Cup and three UEFA Cups. He’s known for his ultra-conservative tactics. Fittingly, he’s a member of Opus Dei.
Squad: With a proletarian squad, the Irish must progress with their wits. Wolves’ Kevin Doyle will lead the line up front with the LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane behind him. They have a solid, but unspectacular midfield with Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Damien Duff and Spartak Moscow playmaker Aiden McGeady. The back four is of a similar mould. It should be Stephen Ward at left back, John O’Shea at right back and Richard Dunne with either Stephen St. Ledger or Darren O’Dea in the middle. Shea Given is an excellent shot-stopper. It looks as though he’ll be fit. The old war horse, Kevin Kilbane, has been sent out to stud.
Tactics: Trapattoni plays an austere, defensive 4-4-1-1. The Irish hold their positions, defend doggedly and hope Robbie Keane can create something on the counterattack. It’s not inspiring, but it has gotten the most from meager talent.
Prognosis: Ireland fits the profile (Denmark ’92, Greece ’04) of the incredible long shot with a stern defense that shocks the continent and wins the Euros. The match order may blunt attempts to recreate this. They get their must-win match, Croatia, first forcing them to open up immediately. Failing would force them to open up against Spain and Italy as well. It could get messy. Should they progress, there’s an attainable route to the semifinal, though that’s not the most likely scenario.
Fun Fact: Seven different countries have had presidents or prime ministers of Irish descent, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Israel and Chile (Bernardo O’ Higgins).
[Photo via Getty]