Luck of the Irish? Not in the World Cup Play-Offs

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The so-called ‘luck of the Irish’ obviously does not extend to World Cup play-offs. In the four World Cup play-offs that Ireland have contested so far, they have only been victorious once. With the Republic about to face a fifth play-off, against Denmark, (the first leg is on Saturday in Copenhagen, with the second leg in Dublin on Tuesday night), we look back at the previous four World Cup play-offs that the Irish have been involved in.

Luck of the Irish? Not in the World Cup Play-Offs

1965: Ireland Lose to Spain (1-0)

The 1966 World Cup will always be the most memorable World Cup for England fans. However, for the Irish it is a case of what-might-have-been. They might have qualified for the tournament, when they would probably have been the second-best supported team after the hosts (because of the vast number of Irish immigrants and second generation Irish people who live in Britain), but they fell at the final hurdle against Spain.

In the 1960s, World Cup qualification was very different to what it is today. For a start, the qualifying groups were not simply organised along regional or continental lines, as they are now. As such, Ireland were initially drawn in a qualifying group with Spain and Syria. When the Syrians withdrew, qualification became a straight shoot-out between Ireland and Spain.

Spain were the reigning European Champions at the time (their 1964 European title was the only major international tournament they would win until Euro 2008). Ireland’s team, though, featured some star players. Manchester United’s Noel Cantwell, in defence, and the great Johnny Giles, in midfield, were no pushovers. Nevertheless, Ireland, having won the first game in Dublin 1-0, were beaten 4-1 in the return. Barcelona’s Jesus Pereda scored a hat-trick. Astonishingly, there was no aggregate score at the time in World Cup play-offs. In this case, there was a third game on neutral territory. This was played in Paris in November 1965. Unfortunately for the Irish, they lost again and so had to spend the following summer watching the World Cup in England rather than competing in it.

1997: Ireland Lose to Belgium (3-2 On Aggregate)

It would be another 32 years before Ireland took part in a World Cup play-off again. They did, though, contest a single-match play-off against Holland to reach Euro 96. (Clearly, the Irish are destined never to reach a major football tournament when it is held in England).

In the intervening years, of course, Jack Charlton had transformed Irish football at international level. He took Ireland to their first ever major international tournament when they qualified for Euro 88 in Germany. He then backed that up by qualifying for the next two World Cups, in Italy (1990) and the USA (in 1994).

However, by 1997 not only had Big Jack himself departed as Ireland manager, but so had most of the great players who had served him so well in the previous decade, including Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan and John Aldridge. Only a young Roy Keane was left of the truly great Irish team that had done so well in the previous two World Cups and consequently Ireland were unable to beat even a fairly moderate Belgium side over two legs. They drew the first match in Dublin 1-1, but lost the second leg in Brussels 2-1. Anderlecht’s Luc Nilis scored a late winner to break Irish hearts and take the Belgians over the border to France for the following summer’s festivities.

2001: Ireland Beat Iran (3-1 On Aggregate)

Mick McCarthy’s Ireland would lose yet another play-off in 1999, when they lost to Turkey in a play-off for Euro 2000. However, McCarthy made it third time lucky when Ireland beat Iran to reach what remains the last World Cup Finals that they have qualified for, Japan and South Korea in 2002.

Ireland had earned their luck, including a fortuitous draw against Iran rather than more threatening play-off opposition, by coming second in a fiercely competitive World Cup qualifying group behind Portugal. The fact that the third-placed team in that group was Holland showed just how much they had improved under McCarthy. So, for once they went into a World Cup play-off as the favourite.

They justified that status with what for Ireland was a pretty comfortable aggregate victory. The first game in Dublin was won 2-0, with goals from Robbie Keane and Ian Harte. Ireland then drew the second leg in Tehran 1-1. Goalkeeper Shay Given was the real star in this game. So, for the first and so far only time in their history, the Republic of Ireland had won a World Cup play-off.

2009: Ireland Lose to France (2-1 On Aggregate)

Usually, a team’s last defeat feels like its worst defeat, because it is the most recent one. In Ireland’s case, though, their last World Cup play-off defeat to date, against France in 2009, was undoubtedly the most painful in the country’s history. The fact that France themselves would go on to have one of the worst World Cups ever by any team, crashing out in the first round in South Africa in 2010 after the whole squad had gone on strike against their manager Raymond Domenech, was little consolation.

Ultimately, the two-legged tie came down to that handball by Thierry Henry. He set up William Gallas to score the deciding goal. Up to that point, Henry had been one of the most universally popular players in the history of football. His extraordinary skill and goal-scoring ability was allied to genuine Gallic charm. But he became universally unpopular in Ireland after his decision to play basketball rather than football. To this day, his reputation has never recovered.

And This Time Around…?

Given their chequered record in World Cup play-offs, Ireland would do well to be wary of Denmark. That is even with the potentially crucial second leg of the tie being in Dublin. Unlike Ireland, Denmark have a genuinely world-class performer in Christian Eriksen. If Ireland do not watch him closely, perhaps even man-marking him, they could be in trouble. On the other hand, given all the bad luck that Ireland have experienced in previous World Cup play-offs, perhaps they will finally enjoy some long-overdue good luck and Eriksen will break his leg as he walks out in Copenhagen tomorrow night, or at least perform well below his Tottenham best.


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