The process of transformation might have taken all of six years from but, thanks to that €5million deal struck behind closed doors between the FAI and Fifa in early 2010, the details of which have only belatedly and sensationally made it into the public domain, the FAI has managed to surrender Irish football’s position on the high moral ground.
That’s no mean feat considering how highly, benignly and even compassionately we were regarded in the football world in the immediate aftermath of that 1-1 draw in the World Cup play-off at the Stade de France in November 2009, a hugely controversial match and result which meant that, on the back of their first-leg 1-0 victory in Dublin, it was France who would progress at Ireland’s expense to the World Cup Finals in South Africa. (And there’s another measure of changed times: even the mere mention now of that 2010 tournament could easily see a careless scribe mistype FBI for FAI).
But back in those more innocent days, it was easy to tell saints from sinners. Thierry Henry was “a cheat” and we, little Ireland, were nothing short of bloodied martyrs. And, for sure, we bleated and bellyached about it longer and louder than anyone else — and, even more cringingly at one point, floated the idea of a 33rd bed being made up for us in South Africa — but we certainly weren’t alone in our 90 minutes of need, as the great and good of the football world lined up to express sympathy and outrage at the sheer unfairness of it all.
Hell, even the rival manager on the night, France’s Ramond Domenech, could say at the time that he was “sorry for Ireland and in a way disappointed they have gone out,” — though, understandably enough, he was able to stop himself short of supporting our increasingly desperate pleas for a replay.
But what’s Raymond Domenech saying now?
“On a sporting level, it’s disgraceful and unacceptable,” he said of the revelations of the 2010 deal, adding that the Irish players should demand some of the money.
Meanwhile, the President of the German Football Federation, Wolfgang Niersbach, was describing the payment as “a joke”.
Liam Brady — Ireland’s assistant manager at the Stade de France game — dubbed the revelations “mind-boggling”.
Keith Andrews, who played that night, said he reacted to the news with “disbelief and disgust”.
And, in a tweet, Irish player Cillian Sheridan quoted John Delaney’s own words about Sepp Blatter — “Also the way Blatter behaved, if you remember on stage, having a snigger and having a laugh at us” — before appending the withering observation: “I think a LOT more are doing that now.”
The FAI chief executive made those remarks about the outgoing Fifa president in the course of his radio interview with Ray D’Arcy which, whatever the former’s intentions might have been, served only to add fuel to the fire this week, after the guts of the story had first been ventilated, via an unnamed but clearly well-placed source, on the front page of ‘The Sun’ more than a year ago. (It actually appeared on the day of the 2014 World Cup final which, in tandem with the FAI declining to answer follow-up queries at the time, in part explains the mystery of how it came and went without any other great fanfare).
After that, there was a long silence, until the matter was resurrected last week when Gavin Jennings asked John Delaney about it on ‘Morning Ireland’ — at which point, the FAI boss conceded in public for the first time that there had, indeed, been an arrangement with Fifa, but that the details would have to remain confidential “for the moment”.
That such confidentiality was hardly seen to chime with widespread calls for transparency and reform at world football’s governing body seemed, also for that moment, to have escaped the attention of Delaney, even though he’d appeared only too happy to take a leading role in demanding Blatter’s head. As he put it to Ray D’Arcy: “I never got a love of the game from him. It was all about how politics and money could be dispersed.” You really couldn’t make it up.
Now, with the FAI and Fifa having finally given more detailed accounts of what actually transpired, we know a good deal about the nature of the deal. But it still baffles the mind how Delaney can maintain that the FAI felt they “had a legal case” against Fifa over the Henry handball to begin with. (The association has now revealed it had written to Fifa on November 20, 2009 to say they were considering referrring the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport).
For a start, I’m sure officials from the English FA, in town for tomorrow’s game at the Aviva, would love to know how that was supposed to work, given their own country’s fraught history of World Cup injustices, from Maradona’s ‘Hand Of God’ in 1982 to Frank Lampard’s goal that wasn’t in 2010. (But no point revisiting Geoff Hurst’s ball-over- the-line effort in 1966, obviously).
In a statement last night, the FAI fleshed out the timeline and details around the settlement reached with Fifa, in part to demonstrate, it said, “that the board of the association acted at all times in the best interests of Irish football and in full compliance with Irish company law”.
On radio on Thursday, John Delaney had also sought to accentuate the positive, presenting the whole affair as a good news story. Or at least as an upbeat postscript to a bad night at the office for Irish football.
“It was a good agreement for the FAI,” he insisted, “a very legitimate agreement for the FAI.”
And there was nothing in last night’s statement — or in John Delaney’s RTÉ News appearance — to suggest the board has had a change of opinion on that front.
Despite all the condemnation and unflattering headlines of the last 48 hours, John Delaney may still believe that he was doing nothing but good work for Irish football when the FAI reached their settlement, but even he must surely see that a deal brokered in secret with the now discredited head of Fifa has, all these years later, left the FAI and its chief executive tainted by association in the court of popular opinion.
Martin O’Neill expressed the hope this week that the anthems before tomorrow’s Ireland-England game at the Aviva would be accorded due respect.
To which sincere wish one is tempted to respond: well, good luck with that.
It would be lovely if they were, of course, and not least because they will be sung by a cross-border choir which was established in the aftermath of the unspeakable horror and trauma of the 1998 Omagh bombing. But, even so, if the anthems are greeted with nothing stronger than a murmur of disapproval, I’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
Forgive me if I’m guilty of setting the bar too low but, the way I see it, while any booing of the anthems would certainly be deplorable, if that’s actually as bad as things get tomorrow, it would still represent a pretty dramatic improvement on how it all panned out the last time Ireland hosted England in a football match by the Dodder.
Although I was on duty in the press box as the football correspondent for The Sunday Press in 1995, I had to check again last week if ‘God Save The Queen’ had actually been played on the night.
Turns out it had been but was so comprehensively drowned out by a cacophony of whistles and boos, that it’s possible I failed to notice it was even given an airing. A more likely explanation for my mind-lapse, however, is that the ferocious rioting which erupted in a corner of the West Stand, convulsing the whole stadium and eventually forcing the game’s abandonment, so overwhelmed every other sensation and experience and memory, that a lot of the remaining detail of the night simply got lost forever in the chaos.
Because it’s also a fact, for example, that until I happened to speak to him recently, I had completely forgotten that the great Matt Le Tissier happened to make one of only a ridiculously tiny number of appearances for his country in that particular game. He also reminded me that, having started in the first XI that night, he then failed entirely to make the very next England squad.
“It just makes me realise,” he said with a rueful laugh, “how shit I must have been for that 27 minutes.”
Of course I do remember what everyone else remembers about the action on the pitch before the action off it intervened — a spring-heeled, up-and-at-‘em Irish performance crowned by that David Kelly goal.
“We’d been getting battered,” is how, in football parlance, Le Tissier remembered the dynamic of the play, before it was the turn of, first, the old ground itself, then a lot of innocent bystanders and, finally — when the riot police moved in with a vengeance -—the main body of perpetrators, to find out how brutally grim getting battered can really be.
Here’s hoping that, unlike with another unhappy Irish football event this week, painful history doesn’t come back to haunt us again tomorrow.
Even if we don’t get perfect harmony, we’ll settle for peace.