Gaizka Mendieta might have been the man who ended the World Cup dream of Ireland and Robbie Keane in 2002 but these days he has nothing but sympathy for the country’s thankless task in trying to locate a successor to our now retired record goalscorer.
“It’s not only Ireland, I think for any country to replace a player like him would be difficult,” said the former Spain international. “Obviously, for Ireland it’s going to be tough to replace a most amazing goalscorer. Wherever he played he scored goals. Those players are hard to find and if you do find one, you will pay as much as you have to.
“You don’t get many players who have played in other countries and in some of the biggest leagues in the world and scored goals in all of them. Myself, I played in different countries and I know the difficulties that you find when you move abroad and have to adapt to different leagues, different styles and different managers. But he’s always been outstanding wherever he’s played so for me, definitely, he’s among the top players, the top goalscorers.”
On the role of nature and nurture in the making of an ace marksman, midfielder Mendieta observed: “I think it’s a bit of both because I believe you can improve whatever gift you have. But to be a natural goalscorer you have to have something. I could have trained as many hours as I could and would still not have become a goalscorer. Because you need the gift first and then, like him, you train, you polish it and you improve. But you can’t improve something you don’t have. Naturally, instinctively, you have those moves in the box where you know whether to stay or go or wait for a rebound. People say, ‘he was in the right place at the right time’ but when you score 60 goals it’s not by chance.”
Mendieta is pleased that Keane’s experience will now be put to use under new manager Mick McCarthy.
“It’s good that he’s moving into management to help the national team,” he said. “For the players now and the new generation coming through, it will be good to have his experience on the staff. Most of them will have seen him play and will admire him. And it will be a good learning experience for him too. For me, that is the perfect way to start to get that experience, to do it with a national team. There are less demands than at a club and you don’t have to be there every day but, at the same time, the learning process is still there.”
It’s a view shared by former France and Arsenal star Robert Pires who was with Mendieta in Dublin yesterday to showcase their skills at the Street Legends Community Football event ahead of Sunday’s Euro 2020 draw in the Convention Centre.
“It’s very important for your country,” he said of Keane becoming part of Ireland’s new backroom team. “It’s perfect, yeah, it’s perfect. I think for him because he can give some good advice for the new generation, for the new players. He is a very good example, a very good role model and he is good for the present and future.
“Because I know in Ireland that you love football, it’s very good news if he stays in football and can help your country. I don’t know if you have good players, good quality or good talent but maybe he can find someone, because he knows football, Robbie.”
Meanwhile, no encounter between Irish journalists and Gaizka Mendieta can ever be considered complete without painful — for us — reference to his winning penalty in the shoot-out between Spain and Ireland at the 2002 World Cup.
“It only comes up if I meet an Irish guy but, yes, it still happens,” he said with a smile. “Obviously, I can tell that it is still present to this day. But it’s always in a sporting manner. For me, it was one of the highlights of the World Cup and it was a very important penalty for us to get us through. But it was not my greatest penalty, I must say. It could have been better but it went in. It was more central than normal but Shay Given dived the other way and it just went over his legs.”
A nice man, Gaizka Mendieta, but, no, all of 16 years later it still doesn’t get any easier to hear him talk us through it again.