Now, that would really shake them up


Ireland might win the World Cup. They won't, of course, because that would be against the natural order of things. They won't, but they might.

Superstition and modesty has probably stopped any of the Irish players or Mick McCarthy from saying it out loud but that same thought must have crossed their minds.

They would need to have a hypnotic sense of focus and discipline to not have at least dreamt of winning the next four games.

The longer this magnificent and absurd tournament goes on, the more that Carslberg ad is beginning to look like prophesy rather than fantasy. Maybe Jason McAteer will score the winner. He is due a goal for Ireland, that much is certain.

In a normal world the idea of Ireland winning the World Cup would be laughable. But what is going on in Japan and Korea is paranormal. This is the tournament that laughs at tradition and form and reputation. This is the tournament that made Juan Veron look like a misfit from the Vauxhall Conference, that put some voodoo on David Trezeguet and that may convince Lazio to break the bank for Gary Breen. As a striker.

Several people have already conceded that they will feel flat and kind of sad when this World Cup ends. That is understandable. Already, it has given us everything.

From Senegal's liberation against France in the very first game, all the expected lines have been torn apart. Joyful and poignant as that occasion was, the subsequent shocks have been downright spooky.

Watching the USA put three past Portugal was exhilarating but also incredibly strange. You sort of got the sense that you were the victim of a vastly expensive, elaborate and worldwide joke. But that game set a template for the tournament, whereby anything might happen and probably will.

Yesterday, Portugal's Fernando Couto and Argentinian referee Angel Sanchez provided the steamiest piece of screen notoriety since The Postman Always Rings Twice. Taken aback as people might have been at the tackle that forced Sanchez to give Joao Pinto a red card, they must have been shocked at Couto's reaction. He practically molested the referee, who would undoubtedly have issued another red had he not been dumbstruck at what was happening to him. I wish Portugal were still in the competition just to see what Couto would do if a referee had the temerity to flash a red card at him. I sincerely doubt the result would meet broadcasting regulations.

That piece of kookiness was preceded by a classic John Motson observation in the Nigeria-England game on Friday morning.

Because the line involved David Seaman, the inference to be drawn is obvious and tacky and probably in pretty bad taste.

But it wasn't the fact that Motty said "And Seaman is coming out," that was funny. It was the way that he said it. This, remember, was a game that was strictly against the spirit of the World Cup in that it was dour and boring and strangely silent. Not many people, including, probably, the players were paying much attention when one of the Nigerians delivered a fairly decent cross into the English penalty area.

When the pony-tailed English goalkeeper advanced with his usual aura of bland reliability to collect the ball, Motty, for reasons only he could know, took it upon himself to scream - with orgasmic intensity - "And Seaman is coming out."

Needless to say it prompted immediate and joyous speculation among the juvenile minded like yours truly as to how exactly Motty passes the time during less than interesting games. All raffish, schoolboy smutty slurs on a broadcaster of the highest pedigree but still, good fun.

Hopefully it will in time be added to the list of sporting double entendres.

Either way, it was another small example of zany madness that has become the beautiful theme of this World Cup. All bets are off. You are France? See ya later. You are Danny Mills? Play like a Greek god. And you are Ireland? Well, you'll never be beaten.

So what if that was to happen? What if that was the final grand joke in this great carnival that has put a smile back on everyone's face? What if we really shake them up?

At Dublin Airport on Thursday, there were many grown Irishmen walking around in various verdant shades. Several of them were carrying large inflatable green, white and orange hammers as casually as if they were carrying briefcases. They wore shorts and white runners but remained true to their collection of patterned business socks. They looked like they were about to embark on the adventure of their lives. It was great to see because you could tell that most of them had planned this no more than 30 hours before and were kind of punch drunk at the fact that they had blown the kid's college fees for three days that might be among the best of their lives.

What should happen, in a regular World Cup, is that Raul will break Irish hearts tomorrow. But this is not like France '98 or USA '94 or Italia '90. This tournament is touched by a divine force with a sense of mischief.

It would be a classically Irish thing to go and beat the world having dumped the one man universally identified as a born winner. Ireland are playing with this steely conviction and tunnel vision that is purely Keanesian. It is as if he is out there anyway. The longer Ireland advance in this tournament, the sadder the Keane story becomes. It will be a tough thing for the man to burden in later life, long after his Manchester United days are finished and there is another generation of Keanes and Duffs playing in green.

But the one thing that this World Cup is not about is sentimentality. It punished arrogance and mistakes and losers. Hence, France were dumped, Argentina were dumped, Russia were dumped, Portugal were dumped. Great football nations and nations on the verge of greatness, all gone.

Mick McCarthy's Irish team is the antithesis of pomp and arrogance and thus far, they have managed to keep the mistakes at bay. It is about the small man bonding for the greater good and the gods of this tournament seem to like that.

Probably, we will bow out tomorrow. We have to lose sometime, don't we? Because Ireland can't win the World Cup. They won't win it. But they might.