IF football doesn’t quite explain the world, it features enough individual elements that have genuinely allowed exploration of some of life’s bigger questions.
Even Giovanni Trapattoni would surely appreciate the nature of chance and how apparently isolated, innocuous moments on a pitch can ripple out to influence entire title races.
So far, though, no-one has really discussed the existential nature of ‘the draw’, despite the manner in which it features neither winners nor losers, just life’s ongoing ambiguity.
The Simpsons had a dabble when they satirised soccer and the prospect of “Ties! Ties! Ties!” but, if anyone wanted to delve deeper, a perfect starting point would be the Irish team.
As broadcaster Ciarán Murphy said after the Austria 2-2, “Irish football has been a 10-year investigation into ‘how to feel after draws’. These last five days a microcosm.”
Except, you could extend it to the last 30 years. Since Jack Charlton’s appointment effectively birthed the modern Irish football era, it has been appropriate and symbolic that the vast majority of touchstone moments have been draws.
At one of the greatest highs, there was the 0-0 that brought David O’Leary’s penalty against Romania. In one of the worst lows, there was Goran Stavreski’s literal last-second equaliser in Macedonia that prevented Euro 2000 qualification.
In between, then, there’s been the fact four of five games at Italia 90 and three of four at 2002 ended all square. It was also a 2-2 in Holland that precipitated Saipan.
Even that initial qualification, at Euro 88, betrayed a similarly odd sense of equilibrium. Famously, Ireland won a game they should have lost, drew a game they should have won and lost a game they should have drawn.
There’s been a similar sense of ambiguity about how we should feel as the debate about Trapattoni has escalated again in the last few days. Because, on the one hand, it’s pointed out that the Italian has never been beaten away from home in a competitive game. On the other, the only sides he’s defeated in games of consequence have been Georgia, Cyprus, Andorra, Armenia, Estonia and the Faroe Islands.
It’s hardly a stellar list but then we’re hardly a stellar team.
We rarely win games we shouldn’t but mostly win those we should — with the rest generally occupying that odd ground of the moral victory. Indeed, you could argue this history of draws perfectly reflects what Ireland are: a moderate mid-tier team. You’ll never beat the Irish...but they probably won’t beat you either.
Trapattoni, in fact, has fully integrated into that pattern. Just this week, the positivity of Sweden was immediately offset by the painful final minute against Austria. All level. Similarly, he has kept up Ireland’s general ‘draw percentage’ in competitive games since 1986 of 40-45%.
On that note, economist Stefan Szymanski and Soccernomics writer Simon Kuper have argued that, in general, it doesn’t really matter who manages national teams because, without broad changes underneath, win percentages remain the same. For England, it’s usually been around 60%.
And, on a macro level, that is all undeniably true. On a micro level, however, it somewhat misunderstands the nature of international football.
Ultimately, tournament performances and perceptions can disproportionately swing on individual moments like a Wim Kieft bounce, a missed handball or drawing a feeble Estonia out of a pot rather Bosnia-Herzegovina. Similarly, there was the substitution and tactical retreat that arguably led to Austria’s equaliser.
Because there are so few games at international level, the manner in which a manager influences and handles individual moments is even more important.
Whether you draw comfort or irritation from that is down to the individual. That, however, also fits a theme with this team.
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