“This is an Italian concept that’s within us, inside of us, the result is all that counts, centre-forward or not. In Ireland there is no league, most players play in England. I do not know why he does not understand. If you have to be here rather than there, you have to be here, not there.”
The speaker was Giovanni Trapattoni, in a brief Italian aside to an Italian journalist during an Ireland press conference this week. “He” in this instance was me. I was the slow learner who, in Trap’s opinion, had failed to grasp some obvious concepts, forcing him, with the air of a slightly exasperated yet still patient teacher, to explain the lesson all over again.
The lesson in this case was that sometimes strikers have to defend. Trap illustrated the point with the example of the 1977 UEFA Cup final, in which Juventus beat Athletic Bilbao on away goals. In the second leg the Basques poured forward and Juve spent the last half hour defending desperately in their own penalty area, but they prevailed. Trap: “Our best defender, our best stopper was our striker, Roberto Bettega.”
This all came up in a discussion of whether Trapattoni intended to stick with his established XI against Croatia or, as he hinted after the match in Budapest on Monday night, perhaps drop a striker to gain an extra man in midfield. It turned out that Trap had decided against major changes, and instead wanted to see more effort and ‘sacrifice’ from the strikers to help the team shut down the opposing midfield.
That sounded quite reasonable. What was curious is why Trapattoni seemed to think defending from the front would be such an alien concept to the Irish (or English, since Trap doesn’t really differentiate between the two) footballing mentality. John Aldridge used to do it for the Jack Charlton team, Ian Rush was famous for it at Liverpool. As for lacking the Italian understanding of the result being the only thing that counts, the most fondly-remembered period in Ireland’s football history was characterised by grinding, result-oriented football that most often produced a 1-1 draw. We know what pragmatic football is all about.
Marco Tardelli explained his and Trap’s general view of what Irish (or English) football is all about when the two of them were being honoured with a place on Montecatini’s Walk of Fame last weekend. The difference between our football and the Italian way is that we are always trying to force the issue. Our football is fast, impetuous, aggressive, and not very clever. (Trap has previously stated that he sees little difference in quality between the Premier League and the Championship). The Italians, by contrast, are patient and ruthless. They are happy for nothing to happen in a game until the moment arrives to strike. Tardelli said that the last four years had ben a process of trying to get that message through to the Irish team. He knew they had understood, he said, when they drew 0-0 in Moscow.
Perhaps that match was an odd example to use, since Ireland were destroyed on the night and survived only by the grace of God and Richard Dunne. The other thing is that the away draw against superior opposition is a result Ireland have achieved quite regularly: away to Spain and Denmark in the 1994 qualifiers, away to Holland and Portugal in the 2002 qualifiers, away to France in the 2006 qualifiers. In fact it’s arguably the kind of result we have been most adept at achieving over the last 20 years.
Listening to Trap over the years, you get the impression that he sees himself as a missionary bringing light to a place of footballing darkness, as though, after a lifetime of success and glory with elite teams, now it is time for him to do some good works, to help the benighted Irish football nation fulfil its admittedly limited potential. One wonders how much of this is due to the fact that he took over from Steve Staunton, who presided over some of Ireland’s most chaotic ever performances. The qualities of organisation and self-sacrifice Trap and Tardelli claim to have instilled in the team were not much in evidence when Ireland were getting thrashed 5-2 in Cyprus, but they have been there in the past.
Whatever Trapattoni really thinks of Irish football, there is a lot to admire in the way he has prepared the team for the tournament. Ireland have the most settled side in Group C. Slaven Bilic is tinkering with the positioning of Dario Srna, Spain are trying to work out which mega-talent to leave out, and Italy’s build-up has been completely chaotic. Ireland have clarity, focus, structure and identity. Hopefully they’ll give us something to remember them by.