President Michael D Higgins praised the Republic of Ireland soccer team for the spirit they showed in beating Wales 1-0 in Cardiff on Monday night and booking a place in next month's World Cup playoffs.
In his first public comments on the team's second-place group finish, Mr Higgins, a keen soccer supporter, said he was absolutely delighted to hear about the result during his State visit to Australia.
“The fact that we took a difficult path through all of this is going to stand to our advantage,” he said on a visit to Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia’s largest stadium.
“I very, very much want to congratulate the squad and the manager and very particularly the team who rise to the occasion when necessary.”
He applauded the team’s performances in the final group games.
“These last two must-win games have been marvellous and I am sure the Irish public will be strongly behind them. There is so much to look forward now,” said Mr Higgins.
He was optimistic about Ireland's chances in the playoffs to be played over two legs, next month, when they could face a team such as Italy or Croatia. The draw takes place next Tuesday.
“In sport all outcomes are possible,” said the President.
“But I think frankly particularly going into the last two games, the team and the squad showed a spirit that will very, very much stand to them.”
He said that even though he was in Australia, his favourite League of Ireland team Galway United, who are third from bottom in the league, were still on his mind.
“There is a certain team that are in some danger in the league that concerns me even if I am in Australia,” he said.
Mr Higgins attended a business lunch hosted by Enterprise Ireland at the stadium, the home of Melbourne Cricket Club and a venue that is regarded as the spiritual home of Australian Rules Football.
The stadium is the 10th largest in the world and can accommodate 100,024 people.
On his way to the event, he viewed the Olympic Wall outside the stadium that honours gold medallists from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, including Ronnie Delany who won the 1,500-metre gold for Ireland.
He stopped at the statue of Jim Stynes, the Rathfarnham-born Australian Rules footballing legend who won an all-Ireland minor football championship medal for Dublin in 1984 and went on to play for Melbourne Football Club in the Australian Football League, playing a record 244 consecutive games.
Stynes won the games highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal, in 1991 and during the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2006 had a room in the stadium named in his honour.
He developed cancer in 2009 and died in 2012 at the age of 46. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad by Mr Higgins in 2012.
Athlete Sonia O’Sullivan, the 1995 World Champion in the 5,000 metres who divides her time between Australia and Ireland, greeted Mr Higgins on his arrival at the stadium.
She described Australia's hallowed sporting venue as the country's answer to Croke Park.
President Higgins was keen to see the statue of Stynes and Delany’s name on the Olympic Wall, she said, because of “how important that connection from way back in 1956 is to people in Ireland.”
Ms O’Sullivan said that Stynes was held in such high esteem in Australia as a football player and for his charity work that he was honoured with a state funeral when he died.
“He became so involved with life in Australia and became part of the culture but at the same time never forgot where he came from and being Irish was equally important,” she said.