Happy new year, dear readers. There’s some wonderful young talent out there. Vast amounts of talent seem to be pouring out of clubs’ academies left, right and centre. But here are four that I feel you should definitely keep your eye on over the coming months.
1. Marco Rojas (Stuttgart & New Zealand)
At just 22, Rojas had already been making a name for himself in Australia by winning both the Johnny Warren Medal (for player of the season) and Young Footballer of the Year at the end of the 2012/13 season. As his contract expired last April, there was no shortage of takers for the New Zealander of Chilean descent. The winger set his sights on Europe and it was German outfit Stuttgart who snapped up Rojas.
2. Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan & Italy)
A convincing full back that has worn the red and black of AC Milan at various youth levels right up to the senior squad, De Sciglio has spent more than half of his life with the Rossoneri. His versatility has earned him a call-up to the Italian national side in recent times and the 21-year old will be looking to be added to Cesare Prandelli’s squad in the summer’s World Cup. Keep your eye on him – we may well have another Maldini on our hands.
3. Adam Maher (PSV Eindhoven & The Netherlands)
Don’t let the surname fool you – this brilliant midfielder isn’t eligible for Martin O’Neill’s green army. Which is a shame, believe me. Though I am unsure of the actual origin of the Moroccan-born Dutch international’s surname, I am very sure of his talent. Maher is an extremely clever midfielder and is like a young Roy Keane – minus the Cork accent (yet with an Irish name). In 2012, the 21-year old won the Dutch Football Talent of The Year Awards – previous winners include Van Persie, Kluivert, Seedorf, Sneijder, Robben and Bergkamp.
4. Abel Hernandez (Palermo & Uruguay)
23-year old Hernandez isn’t afraid of a bit of competition. A gifted striker, he competes with Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez for a place in Uruguay’s starting XI. That said, with his eleven caps for La Celeste, he has scored seven goals. A nice ratio I’m sure you’ll agree. His club form is also spot on. This season for Palermo so far, he has played 17 games with 11 goals. It’s no wonder the likes of PSG, Liverpool, Arsenal, Galatasaray and Inter Milan have been keeping their eye on this lad.
The good: German football. Oh my! If you thought the big two in Spain were the best in the world then you were mistaken. It was no coincidence that giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund ended up in the Champions League final. In fact, the big two from Germany dethroned the big two from Spain in the semi-finals before coming head-to-head at Wembley Stadium.
The management dream team. While many – and I do mean many – were delighted to see the back of Giovanni Trapattoni, even more were delighted to see the arrival of the new management team for the Republic of Ireland. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have been hailed as the dream team, but they face an uphill task to bring back the excitement that once existed around Lansdowne Road on matchday.
Ronaldo. Messi has had a realtively good year. The previous three were sublime. 2013 however, belongs to Cristiano Ronaldo.
The bad: Luis Suarez. Liverpool’s best player by a mile – possibly the Premier League’s best of the first half of the 2013/14 season. But no stranger to controversy. I like Suarez. He oozes brilliance. But some of his antics, such as biting an opponent, is where I have to draw the line.
The decline of tiki-taka. Admittedly the only way for Barcelona was down. And they seem to be certainly on the slide. The tiki-taka style of football that was synonymous with the Catalans simply isn’t working as well as it once was. Don’t get me wrong – they’re a still a world-class outfit with huge players such as Iniesta, Xavi, Neymar and some Argentinian bloke whose name I can’t remember – but they are a shadow of their former serial-winning selves.
Zahir Belounis. By the summer of 2012, the French-Algerian striker had been almost five years plying his trade for clubs in Qatar. Somehow he found himself in a dispute over unpaid wages dating back to 2010. In Qatar however, the employer has control over exit visas under the Kafala system, and denied Belounis his visa to leave the country. Only last month he was given the freedom the leave the Middle East in order to return to France – 19 months after being denied an exit visa.
The ugly: Qatar 2022. Last month Fifa were forced to address the issue of workers’ rights after an investigation by a British newspaper showed that dozens of Nepalese workers had died in recent months following slave labour conditions preparing for the 2022 World Cup.
Last week, I asked you to cast your votes to see who you, dear readers, thought was the best footballer of the past twelve months. The results are in and here is how the top five finished in order:
Luis Suarez (Liverpool & Uruguay). 40% of the votes
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid & Portugal). 27%
Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Argentina). 7%
Zlatan Ibrahimović (PSG & Sweden). 5&
& Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich & France). 5%
Mesut Özil (Arsenal & Germany). 4%
“What about the others?” you wonder. Well, the Bayern Munich trio of Arjen Robben, Dante and midfield maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger each managed 2% of the votes. As did Real Madrid’s Welsh superstar Gareth Bale. The likes of Yaya Toure, Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, Neymar and veteran Andrea Pirlo each received only 1% of the public’s votes.
But spare a thought for twice-Ballon d’Or runners up, Barcelona duo Xavi and Iniesta – neither received any votes. Nor did the brilliant Thomas Müller, Sergio Aguero nor his former Man City team-mate Mario Balotelli. You heartless people.
So there you have it. Despite all his controversies in the past twelve months – and there has been quite a few – Luis Suarez gets the public’s vote as the best player of 2013.
Personally, I think Ronaldo has had the best year. He has been utterly flawless for both club and country. That’s my opinion. And between himself, Messi and Ribéry, the Ballon d’Or will be going to a much-deserved player, that’s for sure.
Thank you so much for voting, everybody. I hope you all had simply a wonderful Christmas time. Have a good New Year and normal service shall be resuming very shortly.
Folks, I have compiled a list of who I believe are the top 30 players of the last twelve months in world football. But you, dear blog readers, decide in which order they go in. Will it be Spurs/Madrid wonderkid Gareth Bale? Kung-fu master Zlatan Ibrahimović? Liverpool’s controversial genius Luis Suarez?
When you watch a Paris Saint-Germain v Olympique Marseille game, it is pretty much a given that you will be witnessing one of the most tense rivalries in football – both on and off the pitch. The fixture may not be the oldest in the France’s top flight. But it is certainly the most prominent, as well as being the most watched game in the country. This is the story of the fixture known as “Le Classique“.
Paris and Marseille are two of the three largest cities in France, while the two clubs are the country’s best-supported teams. The match is often seen by locals as the North versus the South as the two clubs represent Paris, the capital, and Marseille, the chief port city of the French Riviera.
The first meeting between the pair occurred in December 1971 in the Vélodrome, just a little over a year after PSG were formed which finished in 4-2 victory to Marseille. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 before the Parisiens managed their first victory in the fixture.
PSG and Marseille fans have long had tense relations with various groups of both clubs’ supporters have battled each other. While it’s certainly France’s biggest rivalry, it’s without question the most violent. Security measures are put in place to ensure the meeting of the two teams are without incident, yet this is rarely the case. Numerous arrests are commonplace, as well as far too many injuries.
But on the pitch is where it’s produced it’s most memorable moments. During the 1988/89 season, PSG travelled to Marseille for the final game of the season which would decide the title (what’s not to love already?). With both clubs tied on points, midfielder (and one time Hibernian manager) Franck Sauzee scored a last minute winner giving Marseille the title. Take that, Sergio Aguero!
Many top talents have played in this fixture. Names such as Ronaldinho, Chris Waddle, David Ginola, Rudi Völler, Marcel Desailly, Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka, Claude Makélélé, Fabien Barthez, Gabriel Heinze, and a certain Joseph Barton have all competed. Retired PSG legend Pauleta and current PSG legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic are tied as the highest scorers in the fixture with six goals a piece.
It’s certainly ticks all the boxes when it comes to football’s greatest rivalries: passion, intensity, superb football, sold-out stadiums as well as the millions of people watching it on TV. If it wasn’t for it’s infamous and ridiculous off-field antics between opposing supporters, it could easily rival El Clásico or Milan’s Derby della Madonnina.
Did anyone catch the Keane/Vieira documentary during the week? My one-year-old didn’t wake and let me enjoy ITV4′s brilliant Keane and Vieira: Best of Enemies shown last Tuesday night.
It would be fair to say that Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira never really saw eye-to-eye when they met on the pitch. Off it, as this documentary shows, the two stars still will fight their corner when speaking of past conflicts at Old Trafford or Highbury. But there is an enormous respect between the two men. Though it wasn’t always that way. They are, in my view, very similar people.
The first thing that stood out when watching it is the pure bitterness Roy Keane has for former manager Sir Alex Ferguson (I can’t even imagine the Corkman using the “Sir” prefix when mentioning his former boss). At one point when the two were asked who was the best manager they’d ever played under, Vieira unsurprisingly said Arsene Wenger. Keane, regardless if he truly believes it himself or not, gave a more interesting answer:
Keane: “Without a doubt, Brian Clough”
Interviewer: “Not Sir Alex?”
Keane: “You asked me the question, I answered you!”
Yikes! It didn’t stop there. When asked to use one word to describe the former United gaffer, Ireland’s current no. 2 said “ruthless”. He also described the horrendous timing of the end of his tenure at Manchester United: no club lined up and being injured having put his body on the line for United. But he did say that Sir Alex thanked him for his eleven-and-a-half years at the club before adding “I had to remind him I’d been there for twelve-and-a-half”. No Christmas card for Fergie this year then, Roy?
With 21 red cards between them, the pair recall memories of when the atmosphere of a Manchester United v Arsenal fixture was incredibly hostile, which famously nearly blew up in the tunnel at Highbury back in February 2005. “You were picking on the weakest link!” Keane says of Vieira’s needling of Gary Neville. I wonder how Neville felt watching that.
The two former-pros picked the best players they had ever played with for their respective clubs and then make a dream-team XI from players between the two sides. Friendly banter, if a little firm. Keane seems saddened to leave Ruud van Nistelrooy out while Vieira absolutely insisted that Robert Pires would be a far better addition than David Beckham on the right side of midfield. They settle with twelve men in the end: Peter Schmeichel, Lauren, Tony Adams, Jaap Stam, Ashley Cole/Denis Irwin (undecided with their left-back choice), Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona.
In all, it was a fascinating documentary. And one I was surprised a character like Roy Keane would even agree to do. But it reminded us of the passion, the hostility, the ugly and the sheer brilliance between the two enemies on the pitch. “There is not the same kind of excitement,” Vieira says about today’s Arsenal and Man United meetings. “They are almost too nice to each other,” responds Keane. “There is almost too much respect for each other.”
What did you think? Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and let us know.
The final bunch of group fixtures are among us. Some teams have already qualified. Some will be battling for second place. Some could finish third and enter the Europa League. Some, like Celtic, will already be destined to finish last and subsequently eliminated from all European competitions.
Yes, it’s bad news for Neil Lennon’s men. They travel to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona – a club they’ve met in this competition plenty of times over the years. While the Catalans will be looking to guarantee their place at Group H‘s top spot, Celtic have nothing to lose and will be trying to boost their confidence with a difficult win. The only Scottish side to win at the Camp Nou were Dundee United in the ’86/87 UEFA Cup quarter-finals against a Terry Venables-led Barça side.
The much sought after second place is between Ajax and AC Milan. They meet at the San Siro tomorrow night and it’ll be tight. Ajax came close to beating Milan in Amsterdam on matchday 2. Stefano Denswil’s 90th minute lead was met with Mario Balotelli equalising penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
FC Porto visit Group G winners Atlético Madrid needing a dramatic change of fortune if they are to avoid an early exit from the competition. The Spaniards have been running away with the group thus far while Zenit St. Petersburg visit Austria Wien seeking a victory to guarantee qualification for the knockout stage for only the second time. In the previous fixture, Luciano Spalletti’s men could only manage a 0-0 draw at home against the Austrians.
Rafa Benitez’s Napoli and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal meet with both qualifying places still to be decided in Group F. Separated by just three points, they are both firmly in the qualifying equation as the group reaches its conclusion, although Borussia Dortmund‘s fixture at Marseille will also be closely followed by supporters in Naples. In the reverse fixtures back in October, Dortmund thrashed the French side by 3-0 while a Mesut Ozil-inspired Arsenal side comfortably beat Napoli by 2-0.
FC Basel and Schalke meet in Gelsenkirchen with Group E‘s second place on the line, while the Swiss side are looking to overtake Chelsea who are currently in first place. Jose “The Special One” Mourinho’s men host Steaua Bucharest and will be seeking a repeat of their 3-0 win in the reverse fixture to ensure they progress as Group E winners. Should Chelsea lose they will finish second while a draw would leave them top so long as FC Basel fail to beat Schalke.
Bayern Munich are looking to seal their first place position in Group D when they host a Man City side who need a massive win in Bavaria to leapfrog the reigning champions though both teams are already through. With this in mind, the third spot is up for grabs and Viktoria Plzeň host Russian opposition for the first time in CSKA Moscow and both will be seeking for a Europa League spot. The Czech side are still to earn a single point and a big win against CSKA would be needed.
Benfica take on Group C winners Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon knowing their qualification is out of their hands. The Portuguese side are currently in third place, level with Olympiacos on seven points, but behind on goal difference. The Greeks will go through if they defeat bottom side Anderlecht at home. Benfica must better whatever result Olympiacos manage in Athens to qualify. Back in October, PSG bettered Benfica by 3-0 while Olimpiacos achieved the same scoreline against Anderlecht.
A draw is all Juventus need to earn the second place in Group B. They travel to Istanbul to face Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray and while only a win will allow the home team to overtake their opponents, a draw would be enough for the Italian side. Meanwhile Real Madrid have assured themselves of finishing as group winners and will now be looking to complete their fixtures with a flourish at eliminated FC Copenhagen. The Danish side are in last place but can qualify for the Europa League with victory. Though a draw would also secure third place should Galatasaray lose at home to Juve.
Finally, Man United will be looking to seal first place in Group A when they host a Shakhtar Donetsk side needing a victory to guarantee they will join their opponents in the last sixteen. While Bayer Leverkusen will be looking to spoil it for the Ukrainians if possible, they travel to face Real Sociedad. The Spaniards have only earned one point in the competition and victory for Man United and Leverkusen will ensure their progression at the cost of Shakhtar.
Back in 2003, when a nine-year-old boy named Gerard Deulofeu turned up at the FC Barcelona offices, an hour south from his tiny village of Riudarenes, he arrived as a kid with great promise. Like many in Barça’s youth academy, known as La Masia, the club were taking on a great talent. As the years passed, Deulofeu was constantly making a name for himself more and more and in 2011, he was called up the Barcelona’s B team.
Usually the Catalan sports press are Barça-mad, with very little written about their B side. However, like Messi and Pedro before him, Deulofeu’s name would be creeping into the likes of newspaper Sport frequently. “Who is this kid? Is he any good?”. The answer was an unmistakable yes!
As well as playing as a striker, Deulofeu caused opposition serious damage when fielded as a right-winger. Plenty could see the similarities between himself and World Cup winner and former-Barça B star Pedro (or Pedrito – little Pedro – as he was known in those days.)
Having played with Spain’s youth teams since 2009, Deulofeu was drafted into the squad for the under-19′s European Championship in July 2012. A competition they won. And guess who got player of the tournament? Correct!
Of course, that wasn’t his first honour. He won the same tournament the year before again with the under-19′s ( including scoring against Ireland in a 5-0 thrashing en route to the final).
Having made two senior appearances for Barcelona, his 2012-13 was incredible for the reserve side and many had predicted him to progress into Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s side permanently. However, with the purchase of Brazilian superstar Neymar as well as more established youth players in the senior side such as Isaac Cuenca and the hugely talented Cristian Tello, it was decided that, rather than just selling him and cashing in, a loan-move would be best for Deulofeu.
After his wonderful goal for Everton against Arsenal at the Emirates, the 19-year old will become the talk of Monday morning’s back pages. As Stuart Clark of this parish commented on Twitter: “We’re seeing the emergence of a world class player”. Indeed. It’s very hard not to agree. Sunday evening’s performance was merely the tip of the iceberg for what this kid can be capable of.
Some interesting fixtures await us the draw for next summer’s World Cup sees hosts Brazil take on Croatia in the opening game with Mexico and Cameroon making up the rest of Group A while a repeat of the 2010 final is in store as Spain face the Netherlands for Group B’s opener.
England will face Italy in their opening game in the Amazon city of Manaus on Saturday, 14 June. Also in their group is Uruguay – fronted by the deadly duo of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani – as well as Costa Rica who will feature the most talked about player of the week: Bryan Oviedo.
The Boateng brothers, Kevin-Prince and Jerome, will meet again as Germany will take on Ghana in Fortaleza on 21 June in Group G, having also drawn Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and USA. Speaking of the USA, coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who previously managed Germany, will his former assistant and current-manager Joachim Low.
Ah, the so-called “Granny rule”. Without it, the population of this country would never be worshiping the likes of Mick McCarthy, John Aldridge, Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton or the great Gary Breen. Yes, it’s a rule that has proved to be very beneficial to the boys in green. And now it seems that the current management of Ireland are very keen to take full advantage yet again.
Indeed Martin O’Neill was in London last night for the Crystal Palace v West Ham game to reportedly check out the Irons’ Mark Noble. The 26-year-old has played for England at youth levels right up to under-21′s, but thanks to his grandparents, who hail from Cork, the West Ham midfielder could possibly be soon putting on the green jersey.
Now, Noble is East London born-and-bred. A lifelong Hammer. He has even said his preference is to play for England. I don’t even know if he’s even ever been to Ireland. But he’s a fine player and I would welcome him in the green shirt. His statistics for West Ham are fantastic and he would, in my estimation, get in the starting XI alongside Keano & the boys.
Would his heart be in it if he did switch allegiance? Possibly. The Irish fans are the most supportive in international football and players like Tony Cascarino (who grew up a big England fan and even traveled to the 1982 World Cup to support Glenn Hoddle & co.) is still a much-loved figure on these shores.
Along with him, the management duo are also looking at Hull City’s defender Curtis Davis via the same rule. I welcome any player that’s eligible (and Tony Cascarino – sorry, Cas!). There’s some great players in the current squad such as Aiden McGeady, James McCarthy and big Jon Walters who we’ve obtained via the granny rule.
I’d be happy to see Mark Noble join this list of players.
We’ll start with Group H and the big one here is that Celtic entertain AC Milan. Needless to say, it is a massive game for the Bhoys. A must-win game and a victory against the Rossoneri could see Neil Lennon’s lads move up into second place. This of course depends on the goings on in Amsterdam where Ajax take on the might of group leaders Barcelona.
Atlético Madrid are having an incredible season. With just one loss in La Liga this year, and a 100% record in Group G of their current Champions League campaign, they travel to Russia to face Zenit St Petersburg full of confidence. Meanwhile FC Porto, a point behind the second place, host Austria Wien in the Estádio do Dragão.
Arsene Wenger is looking to secure his Arsenal side a place in the last 16 with a game to spare should they claim three points tonight in their tie against Marseille at the Emirates. While the French side have yet to get a single point, The Gunners are on top of Group F by goal difference ahead of Napoli. The Italians face last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park.
“The pressure is on Basel,” said Chelsea gaffer José “The Special One” Mourinho. He’s not wrong – the Swiss side lie in 3rd place in Group E and just a point behind Schalke. Basel coach Murat Yakin is keen for his side to deliver a victory against group leaders Chelsea and set up a last-day showdown with the Germans. Schalke travel to Bucharest to face FC Steaua.
Man United can claim their spot in the final 16 with a win tomorrow against Bayer Leverkusen. David Moyes’ men ran out 4-2 winners of the same fixture at Old Trafford in September. But former-Liverpool captain Sami Hyppia, now manager of Leverkusen, could take a huge step towards the next round if they defeat the Red Devils. Also in Group A, Shakhtar Donetsk host Real Sociedad. The Ukrainians have their eye on the group’s runners up spot as they are just two points behind the Germans while Sociedad have only claimed a single point in the campaign so far.
Man-of-the-moment Cristiano Ronaldo is doubtful for tomorrow’s clash between Real Madrid and Galatasaray. With Madrid leading Group B six points ahead the Turkish side, Real boss Carlo Ancelotti is unlikely to risk the Portuguese star. Juventus, currently bottom of the group, face FC Copenhagen who are a point ahead of the Italians. Antonio Conte’s men, yet to win a game in this year’s Champions League, drew 1-1 in the previous fixture in Denmark.
All PSG need is a draw to guarantee their spot in the competition’s final 16. The French outfit face 2nd placed Olympiacos at the Parc des Princes. A victory for Zlatan & co. would be news welcomed by Benfica as they need a win against Anderlecht tomorrow to keep them in with a shout for the runners-up spot in Group C and a place in the next round.
Finally, Bayern Munich travel to the Russian capital to face CSKA Moscow as their place in the final 16 has already been guaranteed. Pep Guardiola’s mean have yet to lose this season since their German SuperCup defeat to rivals Borussia Dortmund back in the summer. Also already guaranteed their place in the next round, Man City host Czech side FC Viktoria Plzeň. Manuel Pellegrini’s men go into the fixture on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of Tottenham last weekend.
“One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing” was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s immediate response following Sweden’s 2-3 defeat to Portugal on a night so inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo, it may just secure him this year’s Ballon d’Or.
Indeed it was heartache for Swedes and especially Ibra as he himself admitted that it was probably his last chance to play in a World Cup. Real Madrid star Ronaldo was far too strong and his 2nd half hat-trick made the scoreline: Ibra 2 Ronaldo 3. His performance this year alone makes Madrid’s €80 million transfer fee seem like a bargain. Will he win the Balon d’or prize over rival Lionel Messi and the powerhouse of Bayern Munich and France’s Franck Ribery? If I was a betting man, I’d say yes.
Also missing out on a trip to Brazil next summer is former Chelsea and Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen who couldn’t hold back the tears after Iceland’s 2-0 defeat to Croatia which was surprisingly scoreless in the first leg. So close yet so far.
France overturned a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ukraine in Paris. Two goals from Liverpool centre-half Mamadou Sakho – the first two of his international career – and Karim Benzema was enough to make the impossible possible for the French.
So, to round it up, the 32 teams that will next summer be in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup are:
Argentina England Belgium Australia USA Italy Nigeria Brazil Greece Bosnia and Herzegovina Cameroon Iran Costa Rica Uruguay Germany Honduras Algeria Spain Ivory Coast Japan Colombia Switzerland Mexico Russia South Korea France Croatia Chile Portugal Ecuador Ghana Netherlands
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I for one, cannot wait. There will be some talent on display there.
But here is my XI of players who won’t be in the competition. Let’s go 3-4-3:
GK: Samir Handanovic
DF: Daniel Agger, Stefan Savic, Martin Olsson
MF: Juan Manuel Vargas, Christian Eriksen, David Alaba, Gareth Bale
FW: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robbie Keane, Robert Lewandowski
Quite a handy team there themselves.
Who will you be backing to win the competition? Let Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and hit up the blog on Facebook.
It’s late-October 2009. As soon as I hear the news that Ireland have drawn France in the play-offs for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I make the decision almost immediately that I was going to be in Paris for the 2nd leg. I wasn’t missing this for love nor money. I was convinced that Ireland would play with enough spirit and passion to overcome the French. This was history. How could I possibly not go to such a game?
Of course, I wasn’t the only one with the same idea. Thousands upon thousands of other fans had planned the same. This was great. Only it decreased my chances of obtaining a ticket for the vital match. I make some calls and hope for the best. I need a ticket!
Saturday 14th November 2009. Still no ticket for the 2nd leg. I had spent a ridiculous amount on flights from Dublin to Paris with Aer Lingus as well as two nights in a three star hotel not far from the Eiffel Tower which was also quite pricey. For a football fan, spending this sort of cash and going to visit one of the world’s most beautiful cities is almost meaningless if you can’t get into the stadium for such a match. Tonight however was the first leg in Croke Park.
I am among the 74,103 in the north Dublin venue. Nicolas Anelka’s goal eighteen minutes from time meant that the French had won tonight’s battle. They were not going to win the war. This was our turn. Not only did we deserve to be in a World Cup since our 2002 campaign, but a World Cup is better for having us there. By “us”, I naturally mean the fans. Confidence heading to Paris is high despite the 0-1 defeat at home.
Tuesday 17th November 2009. A call from a mate who is more a-mate-of-a-mate. His name is John and he is what you call a “football man”. He drives to my house with 1 ticket for the game. Face value. Good lord! Never will he be considered a mate-of-a-mate. From this day forth, he is a friend. Cheers, John!
Wednesday 18th November 2009. An early start at Dublin airport, I arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport just before noon. I am not used to being up too early but the adrenalin for tonight’s game has me full of energy. I head for my hotel for a quick shower, a beer, and to get ready for the evening ahead. To the metro and onwards to the Stade de France it is.
I arrive at the stadium and I am immediately taken aback by it’s size. A world-class stadium indeed – it did, after all, host the 1998 World Cup final. I take to my seat. Nobody in the Irish section is sitting. Nobody is silent. This is long before the 9pm kick-off.
Thirty-three minutes in and it’s game on: Robbie Keane puts us ahead. We are level on aggregate. “My God,” I wonder. “We really could do it. We’re playing wonderful”. Full-time. Now extra time. This is where it gets tricky. After an hour and a half, bodies grow tired. An extra half an hour is required.
During the extra-time, while I am standing behind the goal in the southern end of the stadium, the ball ends up in the back of the Irish net at the other end. I can’t make out who even scored it. The screens, for the first time all night, didn’t run a replay. Before I knew it, it was all over and we lost 1-2 on aggregate. No World Cup.
Leaving the ground, some of the Irish lads were irate. I wasn’t. We played with heart and lost out thanks to an extra-time goal. It is how it is. Except these lads were on their phones to their friends back home in Ireland. “THIERRY HENRY BLATANTLY HANDLED THE BALL! THE GOAL SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ALLOWED” they screamed to their friends with the phone stuck to their ear.
I made my way back to an Irish pub near my hotel located on Rue Sainte Dominique. “Oh, I’m sorry,” the barman says to me instantly as I step in from the cold Parisian night with my Ireland scarf wrapped around my neck. “It is embarrassing”.I ask for a Guinness and an explanation as to why he’s apologising.
“Someone had to lose,” I offer. “That’s the way it goes”.
“No, this is wrong from Henry. Look!” he replies, pointing to the screen.And there it was: the replays of the goal from William Gallas. Heavily assisted by the hand of Thierry Henry.
I had to watch it a few times. The pub is packed. There is a number of Irish fans speaking with the locals about it, but my eyes are firmly fixed on the pundits discussing the handball incident. They are speaking French, which I know little of. But I get the gist of what they’re saying. I’m not angry. If Duffer had’ve done the same thing to guarantee us a victory for the World Cup, I’d be embarrassed, but I wouldn’t blame him. At least that’s what I tell myself and I sip on my €8.50 Guinness.
Au revoir, Paris. You’re robbing me tonight, that’s for sure.
Photographs were taken by Rob Smith in the Stade de France on 18th November 2009. Follow him on Twitter (@robsmithireland)
Three time FAI Cup winner Ciaran Kelly will on Saturday lead a select Sligo Rovers side against a star studded GAA side featuring some of the sport’s biggest names such as 2012 All Ireland Winners Karl Lacey & Paul Durcan and 2013 All Ireland winners Philly McMahon & Diarmuid Connolly.
Kelly, who won his third FAI Cup winners medal recently, will be remembered by some for saving two Shelbourne penalties in the shoot-out in the 2011 final, having just been introduced into the game at the end of extra time.
There will be over 100 League of Ireland medals worth of talent on display in Phibsborough for Owen Heary’s tribute game on Sunday. The current Bohs manager will take part in a Bohemians XI against a Shelbourne XI at Dalymount Park.
Big names such as current internationals Wes Hoolahan and Paddy Madden will turn out in the fixture as well as league legends such as Glen Crowe, Jason Byrne, Richie Baker, Joseph Ndo, Jason McGuinness and Ken Oman. As an extra little nice touch, the Bohemians XI will be managed by Pat Fenlon.
Prices for Sligo Rovers XI vs GAA All Star XI are €10 for adults and €5 for U-16’s. Kick-off is 5pm on Saturday.
The Bohemians XI vs Shelbourne XI game is €10 for adults while OAPs and U-12s €5. Kick of 3pm on Sunday.
We can still qualify for the World Cup next summer! And by “we”, I am referring to Iceland. Yes, that’s right. The good lads behind the website CountyIceland.ie have adopted the Nordic island as “the 33rd county” and have pledged their support to the team.
Is it because it’s spelling is very similar to Ireland? I’d say that’s likely. Regardless of the reason, you can now get behind Martin O’Neill’s green army Lars Lagerbäck’s blue army.
Eidur Gudjohnsen and the boys face an uphill battle however as they face Croatia in the World Cup play-offs. Croatia’s victory against Iceland Ireland in last year’s European Championships will be fresh in memory for many to know that they aren’t exactly pushovers.
At the time of writing, there is just under 5,500 Irish fans who pledged their support for Lars’ boys in blue on the site. We’ll definitely keep an eye on Friday’s fixture (we must focus on the events in the Aviva Stadium on Friday firstly). But should the Icelandic boys make history and earn a place in Brazil 2014, the lads will have the full support from this blog.