Some pride restored in Poznan adieu
IT WAS a long, slow goodbye and in the end, Giovanni Trapattoni, the godfather of football royalty in Italy, must have smiled at the oldest truth. When the gods are not with you, there is nothing much you can do with it.
Ireland were gallant in their curtain call in Poznan and played some good football but when it was all over, the Italians still had two goals and pranced around the field in delight, while the Irish players stood in front of their unstinting fans for a final valedictory song.
A late Jesus Navas goal for Spain sealed Croatia’s fate in the other match and so the aristocrats advance from this cruellest of groups.
“I think we played much better,” said Trapattoni. We played with more personality. Credibility, commitment and also this evening we commit a little mistake in two corners. But I am proud of all our commitment because we promise Italia can beat us but we leave them our honour, our commitment.
“And maybe we deserve a little bit. They play without many mistakes and we play very well and we also had possibilities.”
That this team stands at a crossroads was made evident before the game as Damien Duff, Ireland’s newest centurion, wore the armband in honour and stood waiting to take the field with Gianluigi Buffon; Italy’s serial captain, towering above him.
Out in the stadium, nothing had changed: the muggy night filled with Irish chants from the wonderful desperados. Even as the Irish team lined up for the national anthem, the question as to whether this combination of players would ever line out again was on many minds. But at least last night, they remembered what it was to be a team again.
After 10 minutes, when the Irish understood this tournament was not fated to be catastrophic for them, a strange thing happened. They began to enjoy themselves. It was like watching colour returning to the face of a child with a tummy bug. The energy returned and with it the boldness and cohesion that has made them such an obdurate force under Trapattoni. ,
It was there in the clattering, no-respect tackle Kevin Doyle inflicted on Andrea Pirlo just as the Italian maestro was eyeing up Shay Given’s goal with the leisurely air of a man perusing a wine menu. Doyle won the ball and cantered away and Pirlo stayed on the ground, clutching his ankle.
In truth, only his dignity was wounded. Doyle disdainfully killed the ball and Pirlo returned to his feet to the kind of chorus of boos that would greet a streaker at La Scala.
In the minutes that followed, the Irish shed fear with pounds of perspiration. Suddenly, Irish fans were treated to Aidan McGeady jinking towards Buffons goal. Duff, the centurion, cast off the years and rediscovered the old devil-may-care attacking instinct, running at the defence and winning a free in the 26th minute.
And the back four discovered their synchronicity. It was bittersweet stuff.
That the Italians led by a goal at the break was tough. Ireland paid dearly for the concession of a sloppy corner and Antonio Cassano got his head to Pirlo’s exquisite right-flag delivery.
It was a classic Italian goal: prosaic, sneaky and heartbreaking.
The night wore on. From high up in the bleachers, the Lesser-Spotted-Shane-Long could be seen going through his warm up routine and it was with about half an hour left and the match still hanging in the balance you wished Trapattoni would sometimes rip up the notebook every now and then and gamble on youth and impetuosity.
But it was Cesare Prandelli who made the first switch in what might have been a nod to Trapattoni: he whipped off Cassano, his goalscorer, and set up Italy to see the night out. Then, with just over 25 minutes left, Long got his chance.
Jon Walters and Simon Cox were also thrown in. It was an ironic moment: against Italy, Trapattoni, the father of tactical conservatism, went radical. And it was hard, when Doyle won a terrific free kick after a sweet lay-off from Long, to realise there could be more to this Irish team than bread and butter heartiness.
Trailing by a goal, it was the they who played as if a quarter -final was at stake. Those rousing minutes might have been enough to convince the Italian to persevere with Ireland for the next campaign.
“In my life I have been a manager of great teams and I have a habit of win or lose, I don’t sleep in the night. I think if I make a mistake. I play immediately the game against Croatia and Spain. Italy is just finished. This game did not disappoint. The willingness to begin again is there because we have fresh energy and with a new squad we can do better. I wait this moment to start again the new season.”
The Italians were rattled for the last 20 minutes. At about 10.15pm, night flies began to fall into the stadium, as if felled by the night heat or the boozy fumes rising above the stadium in Poznan. This was the confetti that greeted the arrival of Mario Balotelli.
Keith Andrews’ last act in the tournament was to boot a ball into the crowd in disgust at the second yellow shown by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir. (You’d blush if you heard what the fans did with his first name). Andrews had hardly made it down the tunnel when Balotelli banged home a goal, an ill deserved bonus for the Italians in the 90th minute. .
“Now is too early because I can also say to you that I spoke just now with one or two and we will see again in the next friendly game in August,” Trapattoni said of the boys who might bow out.
“They smile but maybe this moment these words are in the air. They wait and see what can happen. I am sure when I speak with then. This moment is a great disappointment. We had more hope to do better. But tonight I cannot reproach the players. Also the coach Prandelli said that Ireland gave Italy a tough game of beauty.”
Of all Irish players, Keith Andrews deserved to have been out there for the encore rather than seething in the dressing room. But it was that kind of tournament. Nothing worked out as the Irish had dreamed.