Initial optimism gives way to uneasy pessimism
Germany has obvious advantages over Ireland in terms of resources
Former Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff holds the slip showing “Republic of Ireland” during the qualifying draw in Nice yesterday.
Ever since Uefa announced that Euro 2016 would be expanded to include 24 teams, there has been quiet confidence in Irish football that we would be there at the finals.
The confidence was based on the fact that Ireland have been floating around that band of countries ranked from 17th-24th in Europe for most of the last 20 years. Under the new qualification system, Ireland would have qualified directly for Euro 2000 and 2012 and reached the play-offs in 1996 and 2004. The only time we would have missed out on a play-off would have been Euro 2008 – the campaign when we lost 5-2 to Cyprus – as we had the worst record of all the third-placed teams.
So the Irish delegation would have arrived in Nice for yesterday’s draw feeling optimistic about their chances. Then the draw was made, and perhaps the optimism gave way to an uneasy awareness of how embarrassing it could be not to qualify for a tournament that included almost half the countries in Europe. Maybe we should have pushed for Uefa to expand the Euros to 32 teams.
Germany, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar is not the hardest group Ireland could have got. Poland are the only one of the nine teams from Pot Three who are actually ranked below Ireland in the Fifa rankings. Georgia were poor in World Cup qualification, scoring only three goals in eight matches, and Gibraltar will be competing in the qualifiers for the very first time.
If there was deflation when Ireland were confirmed as the last team drawn in Group D, it had to do with the knowledge that Germany should cruise to top spot with a perfect record, leaving Ireland to fight for the second automatic qualification spot with Scotland and Poland, who are very close to us in quality. It’s going to be tight.
Germany’s coach, Joachim Löw, praised Ireland’s dynamic physicality, and noted that “the games against Ireland and Scotland are going to be especially tough in terms of atmosphere.”
It’s a testament to the lasting impression left by Jack Charlton’s Ireland that many foreign coaches apparently still believe that visitors to Dublin can expect to be kicked around by a troop of hulking football gladiators roared on by a passionate home crowd. Löw, who has already taken his team to Dublin twice for qualifiers, knows that won’t really be the case.
Germany’s 6-1 victory at the Aviva in October 2012 was the last in a succession of massive defeats that collectively destroyed the sense that Ireland had once again become a semi-serious team in international football. The technical quality of the German display that night - particularly the two long-range goals by Toni Kroos, one with the left foot and one with the right – underlined how far behind the leading nations Ireland had fallen in the 10 years since they drew with Germany and Spain at the 2002 World Cup.
Haven’t kept pace
It’s not that Ireland have gone into decline since 2002. The quality available to Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane is broadly similar to that available to Mick McCarthy in 2002, with the sizeable caveat that O’Neill doesn’t have a player as good as Keane. Rather, the problem is that Ireland haven’t kept pace with the top nations.
Germany has obvious advantages over Ireland in terms of resources: they have the biggest economy and the largest population in the EU. But they have also demonstrated that they are better organised and more demanding of themselves.
The German attitude is best exemplified by their captain, Philipp Lahm, whose autobiography details his impressions of his first training camp with the international side, which took place in the build-up to Euro 2004.
Lahm’s excitement at training alongside heroes of his like Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack quickly gave way to dissatisfaction at the relaxed training regime presided over by coach Rudi Völler.
In Lahm’s account, the team ran around the pitch a couple of times to warm up, did a bit of stretching and a few drills, then finished the session with a match before spending the rest of the day hanging out at the hotel.
Lahm had expected more. “There was no tactical discussion. There was no video analysis of opponents. There was no video analysis of our own games, that would have helped us to analyse and improve our play . . . from the point of view of today, it seems like a different era of football.”
A couple of things occur to you on reading this passage. The first is that, when Lahm was having these misgivings about the national team training, he was only 19.
Not many 19-year olds have that sort of confidence in their own judgment, but Lahm’s demanding ultra-professionalism is now the norm rather than the exception in the German national team.
The other thing that strikes you is that around the same time, Brian Kerr was trying to bring video analysis of opponents into Ireland’s preparation, and meeting a certain amount of resistance from players who were bored by the prospect of having to watch these DVDs.
That difference in attitude, as much as the difference in wealth and population, is part of the reason why, when Ireland play Germany now, it turns out like one of those appalling 19th-century colonial massacres in which indigenous warriors were mowed down by modern weapons.