The 2002 World Cup is remembered by Irish people today for one incident only, “Saipan.” Almost 14 years later, the issue still divides opinions. But regardless of where you stand on Keane vs McCarthy, it is important that we recognise the achievements of the group of players that came within a penalty shootout of making the quarter-finals.
Down Roy Keane, the team’s best player and lynchpin in midfield, Ireland defied all expectations in the group stages.
The stakes could not have been higher against the much hyped Cameroon – lose, and McCarthy would have been destroyed by the Irish media. But the team eked out a 1-1 draw thanks to a great strike from Matt Holland. Next up were the Germans.
The result again was the same, with Robbie Keane somersaulting his way into the hearts of every Irish person with his last minute goal. The final group game was against Saudi Arabia, Ireland dismantled them with little fuss, with goals from Keane, Gary Breen and Damien Duff.
Second place in the group meant Ireland were up against Spain for a place in the second round. Spain where not the force they would later become, and had a history of hitting the self-destruct button at major tournaments.
With less than 10 minutes played, Fernando Morientes of Real Madrid gave the Spanish the lead. For the third time in the tournament, Ireland would have to come from behind. Luis Enrique, current manager of Barcelona, had the ball in the back of the net again in the first half, but the goal was ruled out for offside.
Spain were all over Ireland, but the introduction of Niall Quinn for Gary Kelly in the 55 minute saw the ‘Boys in Green’ claw their way back into the match. McCarthy went with two up top, and Ireland began to dominate proceedings. Damien Duff who put in arguably the best performance by an Irish player at a World Cup, in particular grew in influence.
For those who have forgotten how good Duffer was on the day, watch the video below.
Duff went by the Spanish left back Juanfran and was taken down inside the penalty area. Referee Anders Frisk pointed to the spot, and up stepped the ever reliable Ian Harte. Harte went left but the tame effort was easily saved by Iker Casilas. To confound matters, Kevin Kilbane missed the rebound when it appeared easier to score.
Lesser teams would have crumbled after being dealt such a cruel blow, but Ireland responded brilliantly with Keane and Duff creating chances. For all their pressure, it looked as if Ireland’s World Cup odyssey was going to end in heartbreak.
In the last minute of the game, all hope seemed lost when a free was awarded to the Irish deep in Spain’s half. Steve Finnan flighted in a hail Mary of a long ball, but the ball was headed easily to safety. A high pitched sound came from the T.V and it appeared Frisk blown his whistle for something. Replays showed that Spain’s centre back Hierro had tried to tear off Niall Quinn’s shirt in the build up, and unbelievably Ireland had been awarded another penalty.
Keane, who had not taken a penalty for club nor country for over 18 months, pushed Harte off the ball and took on the responsibility. The man from Tallaght dispatched the penalty with aplomb, as Casilas stood motionless.
Extra time brought continued domination from the Irish, with Breen, David Connolly and Keane both going close to sending Ireland into the quarter finals. Spain were reduced to 10 men, but Ireland could not force the goal their play had deserved.
For the second time in the country’s history, Ireland would have to endure a penalty shootout to decide who would advance to the last eight. Sadly, unlike in Genoa against Romania there was to be no happy ending for the Irish in Suwon. Spain would triumph 3-2 on penalties.
Having lost their captain and best player on the eve of the tournament, Ireland went within a penalty shootout of getting to the quarter finals.
There we would have faced South Korea, a team which you would have expected Ireland to beat. The dizzying heights of a World Cup semi-final against Germany then awaited. Most pundits agree that that German team was the worst seen at a World Cup, and was imminently beatable. It is not that big of a leap to say that we could have been looking at a final against Brazil. I am not going to make the argument here that we would have beaten the Brazilians!
But I believe this World Cup is largely remembered for “Saipan” and not for how well the team actually performed.
People still talk about Italia 90 and USA 94, but the only time you hear the 2002 World Cup being discussed is in relation to that infamous incident that occurred on that God Forsaken little island in the North Mariani islands. My theory for this is that the Irish public had become accustomed to getting to World Cups, and doing well in them.
It was almost taken for granted that a country the size of Ireland was not only making the Finals regularly, but actually could compete on such a stage. What we would not give for this current Irish team to be coming within touching distance of making a World Cup quarter finals.
I encourage you to watch the video recap of Ireland 2002 World Cup adventure, and to appreciate it.