This week I go over the tournament which will be most remembered by Irish fans for something that happened before a ball was kicked.
“In sensational news from Saipan, we have just learned that Irish international captain Roy Keane has been sent home by manager Mick McCarthy and will play no part in this summer’s World Cup finals.”
I was absolutely stunned. I really believed that this time we had a team, with the world-class Keane at its centre, that could go further than Jack Charlton’s men had done in ’90 and ’94. Instead we had a clash of personalities that should have been resolved behind closed doors spilling out and affecting the entire country let alone the squad.
Never before has a sporting incident divided a nation right down the middle so. You were either for Keane or you were for McCarthy. I’d even be afraid to tell you what was supposed to have happened because depending on where you were coming from you would here contrasting versions of the truth.
If a gun were put to my head I would have to side with McCarthy. He was in charge of the team as a whole, and if Keane had a problem, as team captain he should have approached him in private so they could show a united front before the rest of the squad.
Having said that, the two of them appear to have been as bad as each other when it came to failing to resolve their personality clash which appears to have gone back to the ’94 finals in the USA when McCarthy himself was captain and Keane was a young substitute.
And so in the weeks coming up to the kickoff of the 2002 World Cup finals, the Keane/McCarthy saga was all anyone could talk about. Rumours were circulating every day that Roy was at Manchester airport ready to take a flight back to Japan to rejoin the squad, but they never materialised.
Steve Staunton stepped into the breach and the remaining players were forced to embark on their tricky group which included Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia without their world class skipper.
This was a catastrophic turn of events for the Irish who had done so well in reaching the finals having seen off the Dutch in the qualifying tournament. With players such as Damien Duff, Shay Given in goal, and Robbie Keane up front, plus the experienced heads of Roy, Staunton and Niall Quinn, it really did look like we could make an impact.
As it turns out, the boys in green made a pretty good stab at it anyway. Having drawn with Cameroon in their opener and gotten an unlikely last gasp equaliser against the Germans, they knew a win by two goals against the Saudis would ensure them a spot in the knockout stages, when as we all know anything can happen, and they secured their victory comfortably in the end.
That left us to face Spain in the last 16, a team which always seems to disappoint in the finals, so confidence was high. My fiancée Sandra and I booked a night in a hotel the night before the match so we could be sure of a good spot in a bar to watch the game. Once more, we relied on a last minute equaliser to keep us in the competition, and the match went to an agonising penalty shoot-out.
On a side note, I still have a scar on my leg from the moment the goal went in. Having jumped in the air in glee, as I came down my shin scraped against the side of a chair and left me on the ground in agony, while absolutely nobody around me noticed or cared and I think I must have had at least one full pint spilled on me as I lay writhing in pain!
I managed to compose myself for the shoot-out, however, and we were all gutted to see the normally reliable dead-ball kicker Ian Harte miss the kick that knocked us out and sent the fortunate Spaniards into the next round.
And of course, as many predicted, we all wondered how far we would have gone if the Keane/McCarthy bust up never happened.
As has become the norm with World Cups with Irish involvement, the rest of the tournament appeared to be nothing more than a sideshow, though this time there was a lot to capture interest.
The 2002 tournament will probably be best remembered not only for being the first to be held in Asia, but also for the success of several countries that were previously considered to be “unfashionable”.
The tournament kicked off with the highly unfancied African nation Senegal defeating the reigning champions France, who were considered invincible as they had also captured the European Championship in 2000. The Japan/Korea experience was to prove to be their downfall, and they went all three first round games without so much as scoring a goal.
Host nation Japan joined Senegal in the second phase, but their co-hosts South Korea went not one, but two better, battling all the way to the final four. Another unlikely semi-final participant was Turkey.
Honourable mention must also go to the USA, who capitalised on an amazing 3-2 win over the much fancied Portugal in their opening match to progress through to the quarter-finals where they were unlucky to fall to the Germans.
As for England, at least they didn’t fall to penalties this time – instead it was to a bizarre lob by Ronaldinho in the quarter-finals that their usually dependable keeper David Seaman appeared to allow fly over his head after a woeful error of judgement.
It was those same Germans and Brazilians that were to meet in the final in the Yokohama stadium, and though it was an error from the previously unflappable German keeper Oliver Kahn that changed the game and allowed Ronaldo open the scoring; perhaps it was the absence of Germany’s playmaker Michael Ballack that proved the difference on the day.
Whatever the reasons, Brazil’s 2-0 win secured them an unprecedented fifth World Cup title, a record which will no doubt stand for decades even if it is not improved upon. Skipper Cafu became the first player to appear in three finals and proudly lifted the trophy when all was said and done.
Back in the Irish camp, McCarthy was unable to get morale back after the tournament and suffered heavy defeats in his next two outings. Needless to say Roy Keane did not feature in either game, though having claimed to have been “tired and emotional” around the time of the bust-up, he ended up having a full recovery once his nemesis stepped down from the manager’s job.
Alas, our national team just wasn’t to be the same since the Battle of Saipan, and we have had two unsuccessful qualifying campaigns since. Now, with Steve Staunton and Bobby Robson at the helm, we can only hope for a return to the glory days.
In a bizarrely-timed twist on the morning I was to publish this post, I hear that both Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy will be applying for the currently vacant manager's job at Nottingham Forest, the club where the Corkman began his professional playing career. It seems the battle is not yet over.