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Is Breen Right? What Is The Greatest 'What Might Have Been' In Irish Tournament Football?

Is Breen Right? What Is The Greatest 'What Might Have Been' In Irish Tournament Football?
By Conor Neville Updated

Gary Breen told the Indo today that Ireland could have reached the World Cup final in 2002 - even had Roy Keane remained in his Hale mansion.

He also insisted that a team of Gary Breens wouldn't win many games - though we can only interpret this as false modesty and will, therefore, discount it.

He did say he genuinely felt Ireland could have reached the World Cup final in 2002. This is an increasingly common refrain as the 2002 World Cup recedes into history.

It was such a shame and I look back at that World Cup with a lot of regret because I genuinely believe we could have made it to the final.

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Had Ireland beaten Spain in that penalty shootout, then South Korea and Germany barred the way to the final. That year's Germany team were the kind of outfit for whom the term 'no great shakes' could have been invented. Still, we were delirious to draw with them in the group phase and there's no guarantee we'd have gotten that far.

These wistful counterfactuals tend to assume that beating South Korea was a mere fait-accompli. But the referees were famously dicks to every other team who had the misfortune to meet the Koreans that year, why would they have been any kinder to Ireland?

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Had we gotten by Spain, a far more likely alternate scenario than us reaching the final would have been us losing to South Korea in the quarter-final in highly controversial circumstances. No doubt there would have been a decision or two which would sit alongside Frank Stapleton's disallowed goal in Brussels and Thierry Henry's handball in Paris in the pantheon of times we were robbed.

We would have emerged as the poster boy victims at the heart of an international conspiracy. What's more, we would have made far more attractive and fitting victims than the Italians.

No, there are other even greater 'what might have beens in Irish football' than the 2002 World Cup.

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Chief among them is a tournament for which we didn't even qualify. Not qualifying for Euro 92 was a failure Ireland shared in common with the eventual winners of Euro 92 - Denmark.

It is this detail that has convinced many Ireland fans of a certain age profile that this was the one which got away. This could have been our moment, if only war had broken out in England rather than Yugoslavia.

Ireland's 1-1 draw at Wembley - their third competitive 1-1 draw with England in nine months - is the only game from the campaign which survives in popular memory.

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It is one of those games which was re-transmitted on the RTE series 'The Sports File'.

Afterwards, George Hamilton reminded viewers that plain, ordinary Denmark, who, like Ireland, had come up short in qualifying, only went and won the Euros the following year.

'And we had a great team at that time...' he noted wistfully, leaving the watcher to complete the thought.

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The post-tournament belief that Euro 92 represented a great lost opportunity gained in strength after USA 94 qualifying when Ireland, with the help of Spain, ensured the European champions would be sat at home for the summer extravaganza in the US.

But there is another tournament where Ireland came even closer to the showpiece, a tournament for which they actually qualified but which is often overlooked in these kinds of discussions.

One recalls seeing a commenter scoff at the notion that the Euro 88 squad was our finest on the grounds that Ireland hadn't even progressed past the first round - proving the maxim that boasting a little knowledge about something can be more distorting than boasting none at all.

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Of course, Ireland didn't manage to escape the group stage in Euro 88 but then there were only eight teams in Euro 88. And even then they were mighty close.

Ireland were eight minutes from bundling out the Dutch and reaching the European semi-finals, before Wim Kieft's skittery, spinny header beat Packie Bonner.

Spectators tell us the Dutch were complacently friendly beforehand but grew more and more antsy towards the Irish supporters the nearer we got to the final whistle.

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Despite the fact that Ireland came so close, the majesty of the Dutch, in contrast with the ordinariness of the Danish, has tended to put a stop to any alternate realm fantasies of Ireland winning the event.

But which of these tournaments deserves to stand alone as the greatest what might have been in Irish sport. Which of these is most likely to keep you awake pondering?

Read more: Leicester Fans Thanking Claudio Ranieri Makes For Extremely Satisfying Viewing

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