By 90Min
February 11, 2019

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the Republic of Ireland were one of the best teams at an international football tournament

The tournament was the FIFA World Cup. The year was 2002. 

A time when the world naively thought there couldn't possibly be a president worse than George W. Bush. A time when people unironically listened to Limp Bizkit. And a time when people wore Sketchers...who still make shoes, apparently?

In a year of presidential war mongering, Nu Metal (yeah, that is the way they spelt new), and horrendous dad shoes, Ireland could take solace in the fact that - for once - their national team was actually brilliant. 

Inundated with Premier League talent such as Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Niall Quinn, Ian Harte and Roy Keane - well, maybe not Roy (I'll explain, don't worry) - the Republic of Ireland went into the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea/Japan ranked as the 12th best team in the world. Yes, the REPUBLIC OF IRELAND WERE THE 12TH BEST TEAM IN THE WORLD. 

However, things didn't exactly go to plan prior to Ireland's first Group E game against Cameroon, as a customary reeling against the world from Roy Keane would leave the Boys in Green without their star man for what was only their third World Cup finals appearance.

A heated argument between the national team captain and manager Mick McCarthy, would lead to Keane leaving training camp; basically abandoning the Boys in Green to walk his dogs.

'How heated could this argument have really been?'

I'm glad you asked. The argument was, according to Niall Quinn, "the most surgical anyone has ever got".

'Oh my god. What did they say?'

Again, I'm glad you asked. Below is what Roy Keane actually said to Mick McCarthy: 

"You’re a f**king w**ker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a f**king w**ker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. I’ve got no respect for you. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your b****cks.”

Honestly, I didn't make that up. He said that.

Good ol' Roy, eh?  

So with probably the best player in the country's history out walking his dogs in Cork, Republic of Ireland proceeded into the tournament with now little more than an 'ah, sure, we'll give a go. It'll be good craic' mentality. 

First up was Cameroon, and a pretty unsurprising 1-1 draw in Niigata. 

The draw did little to change the national team's 'ah, sure, we'll give it a go. It'll be good craic' mentality. 

The next game, however, would. 

*I'd like to preface the next part of this article by saying that no, I did not see this game live. On the day of this game, I was in P.4 at Steelstown Primary School being forced to do maths by a substitute teacher WHILE EVERY OTHER CLASS IN THE SCHOOL WATCHED ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT GAMES IN IRISH FOOTBALLING HISTORY. And, no, as you can probably tell, I haven't forgiven that substitute teacher. And I never f**cking will.*

Laurence Griffiths/GettyImages

A 92nd minute Robbie Keane (the only player other than Ronaldo to score against Die Mannschaft at the tournament) goal would snatch a draw with Germany in Ibaraki and change everything for the Boys in Green. It changed the 'ah, sure, we'll give a go. It'll be good craic' mentality. It changed the belief that Ireland were no hopers without Roy Keane. It rekindled a nation's love of a sport. 

The win would also prove the catalyst for Ireland's biggest win ever at a major tournament, as the 1-1 draw with Germany was followed up with an emphatic 3-0 win over a pretty horrific Saudi Arabia team; a win that would see the Boys in Green qualify for the knockout rounds of the tournament.

In the round of 16, the Republic of Ireland were pitted against Spain.

Although Spain would probably beat Ireland roughly 38,000,000-0 if they were to play today, in 2002, it was a very different story. 

Henri Szwarc/GettyImages

Sure, Spain's squad was awash with talent - boasting the likes of Raul, Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol - but so was Ireland's. On paper, Republic of Ireland vs. Spain was a surprisingly even matchup. 

And on the pitch, it was in fact Ireland who would largely dominate. With more possession (which, considering that Ireland haven't strung together more than two passes in about ten years, seems unimaginable) and more shots on goal, on 16 June 2002 the Republic of Ireland should've beaten Spain. They should've made it through to the quarter finals. They should've went on to beat South Korea in said quarter finals, and subsequently faced Germany in the semis.

The only problem was...they...well...they didn't.

What happened instead was: the Boys in Green would miss four penalties in the space of two and a half hours and would be knocked out of the tournament. 

Andreas Rentz/GettyImages

The 2002 FIFA World Cup is now the great 'what if' of Irish football history.

'What if' Ian Harte scored his penalty in the 62nd minute of the Spain game? 

'What if' Matt Holland scored his penalty kick in the shootout? 

'What if' David Connolly scored his penalty kick in the shootout?

'What if Kevin Kilbane scored his penalty kick in the shootout? 



The 2002 World Cup is the only tournament in which the Republic of Ireland didn't overachieve; they actually underachieved. Irish football's 'golden generation' could've, and should've, made the semi finals in South Korea/Japan.

But it just wasn't to be. Instead, for the first time in the nation's history, Ireland left a FIFA World Cup earlier than expected.

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