What If? Reimagining Ireland's World Cup History

What If? Reimagining Ireland's World Cup History
By Eoin Harrington
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For the fifth time in a row, the men's World Cup will kick off without Ireland in attendance in Qatar in a little over two weeks time. For an entire generation of Irish football fans, the concept of seeing their country play in a World Cup is an alien one - EUROs 2012 and 2016 being the best they have gotten since 2002, Saipan, and all that.

Despite the fact it's been 20 years since we were at a World Cup, there are still a littany of magical memories from the competition - from those who were fortunate enough to live through those halcyon days.

It has to be said that, for a country of our size, we have punched above our weight on the international stage on several occasions.

But what if we'd gone even further? Croatia - a country smaller in population than Ireland by over 1 million people - reached a World Cup final not four years ago. If they could do it, what's to say we couldn't?

We've taken a look back through Ireland's World Cup history, and pinpointed five moments that could have been our Croatia. The question "what if" is a painful one, and hindsight is a beautiful thing, but we've allowed ourselves to dream all the same.

Ireland at the World Cup: Five lingering "what if?" questions

South Korea/Japan 2002: What if Roy Keane was in the squad?

24 May 2002; Republic of Ireland captain Roy Keane departs from Saipan International Airport in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, after leaving a squad training camp ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Okay, this one's the obvious one. It speaks volumes to how good a footballer Roy Keane was, and how big a fallout this was, that Saipan is about as notorious in Ireland World Cup history as Packie Bonner in Genoa or Ray Houghton in Giants Stadium.

Search "Saipan Incident" on Wikipedia and it won't land you on the story of a World War II battle - it will land you on the utter collapse of Ireland captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy's relationship ahead of the 2002 World Cup, in a fallout that would see Keane return home and miss Ireland's first World Cup in eight years.

And are you really an Ireland fan if you haven't asked yourself what might have been?


2002 was a famously open World Cup. Defending champions France were knocked out in the group stages, as were Argentina and Portugal. The United States and Senegal both reached the quarter-finals, while hosts South Korea (contentiously) and Turkey both reached the last four.

What could Ireland have achieved if Keane had been in the squad? He was, at the time, captain of a Manchester United side who had won three consecutive Premier League titles and a treble along the way, and it's not hyperbole to suggest he was the best defensive midfielder in the world at the time.

5 June 2002; Robbie Keane, Republic of Ireland, celebrates his goal as Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn looks on. FIFA World Cup Finals, Group E, Republic of Ireland v Germany, Ibaraki Stadium, Ibaraki, Japan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Could he have gotten Ireland over the line in the heartbreaking last 16 defeat that went to penalties against Spain? Would South Korea have posed as daunting a threat in the hypothetical quarter-final with Roy Keane staring them down in midfield? Then we would have faced Germany in the semi-finals - and, even without Roy Keane, who were the only team to score against Germany in that World Cup prior to the final? That would be Ireland and Robbie Keane.

Then, all that stands between Ireland and World Cup glory is Brazil. Well, maybe that would have been a mountain too far, but this Brazil team wasn't quite as flawless as previous Selecao winners. And, with the momentum behind them, and the influence of Keane in midfield...well, we can only imagine what might have happened.


South Africa 2010: What if Thierry Henry had been caught?

18 November 2009; William Gallas, France, 5, scores his side's first goal after Thierry Henry had handled the ball as Republic of Ireland players appeal. FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifying Play-off 2nd Leg, Republic of Ireland v France, Stade de France, Saint-Denis, Paris, France. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Another simple one here, but arguably even more heartbreaking than the after effects of Saipan.


Through no fault of their own, Ireland were robbed of a chance to play at the 2010 FIFA World Cup thanks to Thierry Henry's handball setting up William Gallas' goal in the play-off second leg in Paris. The infamous incident was not noticed by referee Martin Hansson, and France would progress to the finals in South Africa.

This is perhaps the easiest one here - simply put, what if Henry had been caught out for cheating? The play-off in Paris would have gone to penalties, and Ireland could have been on the plane to South Africa.

18 November 2009; Thierry Henry, France, handles the ball before crossing it to his team-mate William Gallas to scores their sides first goal of the game. FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifying Play-off 2nd Leg, Republic of Ireland v France, Stade de France, Saint-Denis, Paris. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Even before the much-documented farce in Paris, there were some shady goings on at UEFA. The decision to seed the top teams in the play-offs was only made after the qualifying groups had been concluded, leading to suggestions that UEFA wanted to ensure that no big teams missed out on qualifying for the World Cup. This decision was what landed Ireland with the tricky draw with France.

The seeding system used for the 2010 World Cup finals groups was also unusual, meaning that only the top eight sides were seeded, with the rest sorted by confederation - so we can reasonably (hypothetically) place Ireland in France's place in Group A.

Would a decent Ireland side, with Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given, and Richard Dunne onboard have gotten out of a group containing Uruguay, Mexico, and South Africa? It's perfectly reasonable to say they would have, at least, fought for their last 16 place. They were ranked 34th in the world at the time of the draw for the groups - over 50 places ahead of South Africa, and only nine behind Uruguay, who won the group.


If Ireland had won the group, it would have been South Korea, then Ghana in the quarters, then the Netherlands. In all honesty, the Ghanaian side looks the earliest likelihood to stop Ireland there, with the energy of the host African fans behind them. Otherwise, it would have been Argentina and Leo Messi in the last 16.

Nonetheless, it's fully within the realms of possibility Ireland would not only have gone to the World Cup, but at least made the first knockout rounds, were it not for the Hand of Frog. We're never forgiving Thierry.

Italia '90: What if we'd drawn Germany in the last 16?

25 June 1990; Packie Bonner of Republic of Ireland saves a penalty from Daniel Timofte of Romania during the penalty shoot out during the FIFA World Cup 1990 Round of 16 match between Republic of Ireland and Romania at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

One oft-forgotten element of the legendary run to the last eight at Italia '90 was how Ireland qualified for the knockout stages in the first place.

Every single game in Ireland's group finished in a draw, except for England's 1-0 win over Egypt. That left England on 4 points, and Ireland and the Netherlands tied on 3 points in second place. With both teams also having identical records on goal difference, goals scored, and the game between them finishing in a draw, they could not be split.

In what was the last ever instance in which it was used at a World Cup, lots were drawn to decide who would finish in second place in the group. Ireland came out on top, and finished in second. Luckily for the Dutch, their points tally was still good enough to qualify them for the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams (this was in the days of a 24-team World Cup).

21 June 1990; Republic of Ireland captain Mick McCarthy shakes hands with Netherlands captain Ruud Ruud Gullit ahead of the FIFA World Cup 1990 Group F match between Republic of Ireland and Netherlands at Stadio La Favorita in Palermo, Italy. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Ireland got lucky (there's no two ways around this), and ended up drawing the weaker Romania and the rest is history. Meanwhile the Dutch ended up facing eventual champions West Germany.

This is one of the few moments in World Cup history where the fates of two teams (almost literally) rested on the toss of a coin. Would Ireland realistically have beaten a West German side which reached their third consecutive final in 1990, and defeated Diego Maradona's Argentina in the final? What would Italia '90 have meant in the Irish psyche if it weren't for Packie Bonner and David O'Leary in Genoa? Or meeting the Pope? Or the phrase "F*ck Schillachi" taking over the nation?

It's a fascinating "sliding doors" moment, and not just for the 1990 World Cup. Given how influential Italia '90 was for Irish football, and for the culture of the nation in the 1990s, there's every reason to suggest the sporting landscape in this country would have looked very different if we had drawn the short straw.

USA '94: What if Morocco had held on against the Netherlands?

4 July 1994; Holland's Denis Bergkamp is congratulated by team-mate Marc Overmars on scoring their sides goal as Terry Phelan, (3) Republic of Ireland, looks on. FIFA World Cup Finals, Repiblic of Ireland v Holland, Orange Bowl, Orlando, Florida, USA. Picture credit; David Maher / SPORTSFILE

The Dutch again, but this time, they were the lucky ones.

With just ten minutes to go in their final group game, the Netherlands found themselves stuck at 1-1 against Morocco, who had lost both of their games prior. Bryan Roy pulled a winner out of the bag in the final moments of the game, and the Dutch topped the group. If it hadn't been for that goal, they would have found themselves on just 4 points in third place in the group, and Ireland would have faced Saudi Arabia in the last 16 in Orlando, rather than the Dutch.

It's perfectly reasonable to suggest that an Irish side which defeated finalists Italy in the group stage would have gotten the better of the Saudis - Ireland were ranked 14th in the world at the start of this World Cup, after all! We would likely have come up short against the Brazilians in the quarter-finals, but the concept of two consecutive Ireland World Cup quarter final appearances is certainly an intriguing one.

Spain 1982: What if the golden generation got their World Cup shot?

25 March 1981; Portuguese referee Raul Nazare during the Fifa World Cup Group 2 Qualifying match between Belgium and Republic of Ireland at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The final entry on our list, and one which may not be quite as well known in Ireland's World Cup history.

Prior to the heroics of Big Jack and co. in Italy and the States, Ireland came close to reaching football's biggest stage on several occasions. Some administrative wrangling arguably robbed Ireland a shot of reaching the 1966 World Cup, but the closest the country came before 1990 was for the 1982 edition in Spain.

With a team that featured Liam Brady, Don Givens, Ronnie Whelan, and Frank Stapleton, Ireland had some serious talent, but they faced a daunting group with Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. A famous win against Michel Platini's France late in the qualifying campaign, however, came too late for an Ireland team who had reason to feel hard done by.

Their game against Belgium saw a simply nonsensical decision to disallow a perfectly good goal by Stapleton. When referee Raul Nazare was interviewed about the incident years later, he couldn't even consistently explain why he had disallowed the goal. That goal had come with the game poised at 0-0, and Belgium's eventual winner also came in contentious circumstances, with a soft free-kick leading to the decisive goal.

Even if the game had finished in a draw rather than a Belgium win, the group would have finished in a three-way-tie at the top, and a golden generation of Irish players would have qualified for the World Cup at Belgium's expense on goal difference.

Hypotheticals, what ifs, whatever you like to call them - Ireland's World Cup history is full of them, regrettably. We can only dream of Roy Keane lifting the trophy in Yokohama on June 30 2002. Or a South African soujourn in 2010. Or a Dallas quarter final showdown with Brazil in 1994.

Maybe Stephen Kenny and co. will tick off that last one Stateside in 2026. We just have to hope there's no more "what ifs" en route...

SEE ALSO: Roy Keane Sees England Falling Short In World Cup For Three Reasons

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