By Bill George, Seoul
IRELAND’S World Cup squad will surely squirm with chagrin when USA trot out to play Germany in the quarter-finals of the competition in Ulsan, South Korea, tonight.
For Ireland out-played both teams in the past two months.
Their discomfort will be as nothing, however, to the frustration that will surely overwhelm them when Spain stride purposefully to the middle of the pitch for the pre-game ceremony before they play Korea in Gwangju tomorrow.
Ireland so dominated Spain that had it been a boxing match they would unquestionably have been given the verdict on a TKO.
Which is why, from this distance, the celebrations on Tuesday had a certain flavour of irony. It was right to give them a heroes’ welcome, it was right their performances, their courage, their sportsmanship, were feted by delighted fans. But they would have deserved so much more even if they succeeded in winning only one of their four matches.
They were dignified, united, and driven as they worked with immense courage and skill to produce some of the best games of the tournament and one of the most admirable series of performances.
In doing so they were merely confirming the quality within the squad, the exciting rate of progress that is being made, not just by the players, but in the tactical awareness of McCarthy and his assistants and the versatility of the squad in being able to adjust to different circumstances.
Which is why any study of Ireland’s World Cup centres immediately on the match against Spain and the infuriating failure of the Irish to secure the goal they needed to send Spain home.
Now there are very good grounds for believing that Spain, like a bull in the ring who has left all but a thimble-ful of his life’s blood in the dust, will be unable to rise off their knees.
When were Spain ever so humbled in competition that they were forced to withdraw striking players in favour of defensive midfielders?
And when they were running short of such options, they sent on a creative player – the marvellous Mendieta – to play as a defender.
Ireland tried manfully to break down the Spanish defence and we have referred already to the belief that they entrusted too much faith trying to find Niall Quinn’s head for the big man to deflect the ball advantageously for the others.
You do not get space or time at this level to pick out a header and Spain crowded their goalmouth to such an extent that Quinn was always physically under pressure as he tried to turn the ball to advantage.
In other words Ireland did not maintain their passing game long enough to get a player to the bye-line so he could pull the ball back, as Duff did just once in injury time, or drive it across the face of the goal between the defenders and the posts – as Puyol did for Morientes’ header against Ireland.
What remains is the issue of Spain’s 10 men in injury time. Perhaps five minutes had passed before their shortage of a player was twigged in the press box for Spain did not broadcast the fact in any way, nor are they obliged to.
I suspect they informed the fourth official and no more. McCarthy admitted that “sometime” had passed before he noticed.
It is a hot topic and one we’ll return to in tomorrow’s World Cup coverage.
Meantime, it seems unlikely that Spain will be the force they were early in the competition when they face Korea in what is certain to be physically a very demanding contest. No team works as hard as Korea, no team is fitter than Korea.
Their energy and their remarkable work ethic have ensured that all of their matches have been as much a test of ‘track-and-field’ athleticism as a test of football.
Indeed a quotation used early in this competition seems more apt than ever now after we have seen 56 matches, ‘The age of great men is going, the epoch of the ant-hill, of life in multiplicity, is beginning.’
For the erstwhile great men have shown feet of clay in this World Cup – Zidane, Totti, Mendieta, Veron, Batistuta, Suker, Prosinecki, Del Piero, Trezeguet, Figo. Anonymous all, to a man.
Now though, Damien Duff is on the threshold of greatness, richly endowed with football’s more esoteric qualities, primed to elevate Ireland to the first rank of international powers.
One is tempted to suggest that had he been afforded three more matches in the inspiring atmosphere of the World Cup the process would have been completed.
And that brings us back to contemplation of the fact that the upcoming quarter-finals will be contested by Germany, Spain and USA - three teams out-played by Ireland in the past two months.
That is why here in Seoul we are left, figuratively speaking, eating soap rather than caviar.
The celebrations in Dublin were deserved, totally justified. But the parade in the Phoenix Park was so close to be a triumphal march that it hurts … badly!