Giovanni Trapattoni and Ireland carry the weight of their play-off history into their matches with Estonia. (Photo credit: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
When Estonia came out of the play-off hat paired with the Republic of Ireland, there was many a wry smile to be had for followers of Giovanni Trapattoni’s team. Ahh, this looked suspiciously like Michel Platini’s payback time. The President of UEFA had some interesting diplomacy on his plate the last time he came across the Irish in a play-off scenario. A couple of years ago, his country, France, locked horns with Ireland with a place at the World Cup in South Africa at stake. The ensuing ruckus makes for a pretty vivid backdrop to Ireland’s latest attempt to qualify for a tournament via the supercharged duel of the play-offs.
In a nutshell, Ireland were heavy underdogs but with a heroic performance gave France an almighty scare, until Thierry Henry gave his team the most controversial assist – twice controlling the ball with a sly hand en route to the winning goal. Ireland’s rage was almost matched by French embarrassment. Accusations afterwards ranged from deliberate cheating to downright conspiracy (and those were just the printable ones).
“They’re all probably clapping hands, Platini sitting up there on the phone to (FIFA President) Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result," growled top scorer Robbie Keane at the time, still burning at the unfairness of it all.
A sense of injustice can be useful fuel to ignite a competitor, but Ireland know they have to take just the right level of motivation into their bout with Estonia. They might have been quietly happy with the draw – their opponents were widely considered to be the least challenging of those on offer. But Ireland know from bitter experience that play-offs do not usually go according to plan. Ireland have faced six play-offs over the years, and have felt devastated at the end of five of them.
Their very first experience was for the World Cup in 1966. Ireland were drawn in a group with Spain and Syria, but once the Syrians pulled out it boiled down to a head-to-head with the Spanish. They each won their home leg, so a neutral venue was the scene for a decider. London was an option – a city that would guarantee huge support for the Irish – but the Spanish were crafty and suggested if it were somewhere else, Ireland could keep a good chunk of the gate receipts. Too tempting. The game took place in Paris, Spain were well backed by the locals and went through 1-0.
Three decades later, Ireland’s hopes were pinned on a play-off for three consecutive tournaments. They lost all of them. Capitulating to the Netherlands for a spot at Euro `96 was no disaster, but seeing the 1998 World Cup and European Championships in 2000 founder against Belgium and Turkey – teams a strong Ireland team did not need to feel particularly inferior to – were difficult disappointments to absorb. Ireland had blown the chance of automatic qualification before they faced Belgium and had enjoyed a very respectable record against the Turks, but they failed to rise to the occasion.
Naturally, the play-offs began to represent more of a worry than an opportunity. Their unhappy record of missing out on three finals in a row in this way added to an undercurrent of anxiety as Ireland faced yet another play-off for the 2002 World Cup.
The draw provided them with a voyage into unfamiliar territory as they came up against Iran. Ireland required enormous courage to overcome not only their own fear of the play-off but also an unwelcoming trip to Tehran to defend their lead in front of a crowd of 100,000 without their captain Roy Keane.
Credit was due to the Irish set up for sticking with their coach, Mick McCarthy, who had presided over both play-off heartaches against Turkey and Belgium, before striking lucky at the third attempt.
Is it fair to judge a coach on a play-off? Rightly or wrongly, Trapattoni finds himself under considerable scrutiny over the next few days. Should Ireland fail to go through, their wise old Italian mastermind will be on his way. Should Ireland take their place at an international tournament after a decade in the wilderness, a contract extension is more than likely.
“I was talking the other days about standing on the edge of the cliffs – that’s our life, it’s a manager’s life," Trapattoni said.
Estonia more or less came from nowhere to qualify for the play-offs by finishing runner up of their group behind Italy. But it must be noted they performed particularly well away from home, winning in Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland to claim their position as the best of the rest. The second leg in Dublin is supposed to be Ireland’s big advantage, not that Trapattoni will allow for anything to be taken for granted. “In football you see little teams beat the great teams. For me, it is no surprise. But we must think these 180 minutes is our life.”
If, as the Irish like to look at it, they were handed an opportunity by a Frenchman in the form of Platini’s draw, this time, they have to grab it. But they will know better than to expect anything easy.