Seven words uttered by Robbie Keane summed up Ireland’s feelings as they filed on to their bus.
“It’s the dream come to an end.”
In the cruellest of fashion, Ireland had been beaten, on penalties, having salvaged a 2-2 draw with Spain the second round of the 2002 World Cup. This was a night when Mick McCarthy’s players were filled not just with disappointment but earned pride.
“We can be proud of what we’ve done for ourselves, our families and our country. It was a great performance and it just wasn’t meant to be. We can’t be disappointed with the way we’ve performed, not only today but in all the games.”
As commentators noted, but many today forget, Ireland departed the World Cup undefeated in normal time. Germany, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, and Spain had failed to defeat them. Robbie Keane was the only player to beat the imperious Oliver Kahn until Ronaldo grabbed two in the final.
Spain had taken the lead in the eighth minute through Real Madrid striker Fernando Morientes and looked well on their way to a comfortable victory. With Raul and Morientes showing excellent movement and Juan Carlos Valeron some excellent touches in behind them, the Spanish lead was nearly extended on a number of occasions.
But Ireland, invigorated by the introduction of Ireland’s then top-scorer Niall Quinn, fought back and looked the more likely winners after the break. Ian Harte, normally so deadly from the spot, had already missed a penalty before his Leeds team-mate Robbie Keane equalised from the spot in the final minute of normal time.
Matt Holland, David Connolly, and Kevin Kilbane missed in the shoot-out to allow Gaizka Mendieta to score the penalty that broke Irish hearts and sent Spain in the last eight.
“There’s definitely no regrets,” said Steve Finnan, who along with Keane was the only Irishman successful from the spot in the 4-2 penalty defeat.
“The lads just said they’ve had the best five weeks of their career. It probably won’t get better. If we had put in a bad show and got beaten we would feel regret, but we did as much as we could tonight.”
Spain: Casillas, Puyol, Helguera, Hierro, Juanfran, Baraja, Valeron, De Pedro (Mendieta 66), Luis Enrique, Raul (Luque 80), Morientes (Albelda 71)
Not used: Contreras, Curro Torres, Joaquin, Nadal, Ricardo, Romero, Sergio, Tristan, Xavi.
Republic of Ireland: Given, Garry Kelly, Staunton (Cunningham 50), Breen, Harte (Connolly 82), Finnan, Kinsella, Holland, Kilbane, Duff, Keane.
Not used: Carsley, Dunne, Kiely, McAteer, Morrison, O’Brien, Reid, Alan Kelly.