Trap fears repeat of history

GIOVANNI TRAPATTONI is too smart to express a preference in terms of Ireland’s World Cup play-off opponents, although it’s a pretty safe bet that he wouldn’t be wholly in disagreement with Marco Tardelli’s choice of Greece.

And the wily old Italian is also too diplomatic to state outright that, up against big guns like France or Portugal, Ireland can probably expect few favours from the match officials in next month’s decisive games, a notion already given currency by FIFA’s belated decision to seed the play-offs.

“In Italy there is a saying: there’s no point in making excuses before something has happened,” Trapattoni replied yesterday, when asked if he had concerns about potential bias in next month’s games.

Yet, you don’t have to dig too hard to unearth the fear lurking in the back of Trapattoni’s mind, a fear, born of painful experience, which bubbles to the surface when he offers a novel way of explaining his conviction that it is better to play the away game first.

“I don’t want to meet another Moreno”, is how he puts it.

That would be Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee who has a permanent place in Italian football’s Hall Of Infamy for his hugely controversial handling of the 2002 World Cup last 16 game, the game which saw Trap’s Azzurri eliminated by tournament co-hosts South Korea amid outraged allegations back home of conspiracy and corruption.

Speaking at FAI headquarters in Abbotstown yesterday, Trapattoni revealed he’d feared the worst when the tournament’s other hosts Japan were eliminated by Turkey even before Italy’s quarter-final had kicked off.

“Japan went out before our game and I said: disaster,” he recalled.

And so it seemed to come to pass: Italy had Francesco Totti sent off for diving, a goal wrongly disallowed for offside (one of five not given to his team in the tournament, Trapattoni reminded us), and a penalty awarded against them, after just three minutes, which was saved by Buffon.

At 1-1, there was still the possibility of redemption but Christian Vieri missed the proverbial sitter from a yard out before, three minutes from the end of extra-time, Ahn struck the golden goal for South Korea – and it was all over for Italy bar the shouting, screaming, weeping, wailing and accusations of what a La Gazzetta Dello Sport editorial called “shameful betrayal” by the powers that be.

“I don’t wish to speak about Korea,” Trapattoni said at one point yesterday but, in truth, he can hardly help himself.

On the official film of the 2002 World Cup, screened just this week on ESPN, he can be heard saying how that match will haunt him for the rest of his life. And even when he was asked an apparently unrelated question yesterday – would he be attending Monday’s play-offs draw in Zurich? – his reply again transported him back to that fateful game.

“The last time I went to the World Cup draw, I was very unlucky in Korea,” he smiled thinly, adding, “I am a bit superstitious.”

Trapattoni was on altogether happier ground when it came to assessing Ireland’s readiness to face the challenge of whichever country they come up against in Monday’s draw. “It’s like Formula One,” he said. “One team is like the other. We’re all on the same line.”

So no ‘oul bangers in the top pot, as far as Trap is concerned then – although, once again, there was a hint that some might be more equal than others. ‘‘Portugal must go to South Africa because there is Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said. “Football is football. France has very good players, famous players – Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka. France is France. At the moment in Russia it’s Andrei Arshavin.”

“It’s easy to say Greece is not famous like France or Russia. But anything can happen in 90 minutes. After Greece won the Europeans, their self-confidence grew. Today they are strong. They are not less famous or less strong. They are not inferior to Portugal or France. Their mentality is a little bit like us. They haven’t famous players, like Ronaldo scoring from 30 metres. But it’s all about the result. And if we believe, we can get the result.”

As ever, Trapattoni has the rosary beads out in the hope that his squad doesn’t suffer any more injury setbacks, after Martin Rowlands joined Steven Reid on the sidelines after damaging his knee in Wednesday night’s game against Montenegro.

However, those thinking that the silver lining to such a midfield injury clouds might be the return of Andy Reid will have to think again, to judge by Trapattoni’s version of the pecking order. “Darron Gibson is a little like Steven Reid,” said the manager. “He’s young, he has personality. He plays for Manchester Untied and he is growing and improving. For me, he is also good for the future. John O’Shea is also an option there. There are many other Irish players out there, with Irish fathers, grandfathers. We look.

“I don’t forget Stephen Ireland or Andy Reid. But now we have a team, a concrete team. We play a type of football which is real and we haven’t been humiliated on the pitch so far by Italy, Bulgaria or any other. We are one of the five teams who did not lose in the qualifiers. We can improve our self-confidence. But I know this is not enough. We have achieved only 50% of our jobs, of our aims. Only after the play-off, I think, I hope, we can be happy. Our aim, our goal, is to look for qualification for South Africa.”

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