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Nov 16, 2011

Joyous Ireland earn craic at Euros

You don't have to look far to find misery in an austere Ireland just now, so the joyous scenes that greeted the national team's qualification for Euro 2012 served to re-ignite long lost optimism.

Two years have passed since the sport that has a history of lifting Ireland in times of crisis gave an already battered population a hearty kick in an especially tender spot, with Thierry Henry's infamous handball in the World Cup play-off in Paris sparking worldwide sympathy for Giovanni Trapattoni's gallant team. Sympathy, we can confirm, did little to soften a desperately agonising blow.

While Tuesday night's events at a rocking and jubilant Aviva Stadium did not quite compensate for the despair of missing out on the biggest competition of them all, it felt as if Ireland had waited long enough for the break that came their way as they secured their passage to the Euro 2012 finals.

Being handed a play-off tie against an Estonian side who were woefully out of their depth playing qualification over-time for the first time in their history was the break Ireland were looking for, but few could care less about such fortune. The over-hyped luck of the Irish has been absent for far too long and at last the nation has something to lift flagging spirits.

The football match that nearly broke out at the Aviva Stadium as Ireland drew 1-1 with an already beaten Estonia was never likely to provide a fitting backdrop to a party that had started before kick-off. Friday night's emphatic 4-0 win in Tallinn confirmed qualification would be routine for once, with the joyous newspaper headlines greeting the Ireland players as they awoke in their hotel, doubtless with slightly stinging heads, merely confirming a delightful reality.

The first word of analysis should go to the architect of the triumph, a manager who has come under constant fire from a majority of the demanding local media during his three years as Ireland boss and who has now completed his revival of a team that had sunk to alarming depths before his arrival.

Clearly overcome with joy at a job well done, 72-year-old Trapattoni was greeted by delighted faces in the vast Aviva Stadium media room, as he tried to sum up his emotions on a night when his hard work was given a handsome bonus.

"This is the dream for all the Irish people and I am happy for them," said Trapattoni, who vowed to celebrate by hauling his aging frame up Croagh Patrick, a mountain that gained its legend from fables of St Patrick's visit to the site back in the fifth century. "It is time to feel happy now and then we can start to think about Euro 2012. I congratulate the players and the supporters have been wonderful as well."

We should not forget where Ireland were before Trapattoni's improbable arrival in 2008, with the legacy left by his predecessors Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton hardly suggesting an Irish revival was just around the corner.

Trapattoni's magic dust has been liberally sprinkled as he has found a simple formula to get Ireland winning again and while it has rarely been pretty to behold, the end result was a qualification that was toasted by Vincent Hogan in this Wednesday morning's Irish Independent.

"Maybe sport doesn't solve important things, but it can shine a light into better places," he wrote. "How many different ways do we need to be told that the country has neither credit nor sovereignty? That our banks were really casinos and our politicians, essentially, croupiers? Every news bulletin, every talk-show, every phone-in becomes just another keening lament for what has been taken from us.

"We are in the dark belly of a depression, anger flooding our days. Through sport, we snatch moments of escape, maybe fleeting glimpses of the best things that we can be. They have never felt more important. Last night wasn't a celebration of football. It was an outpouring of thanks that, for all the incestuous wrong-doings that have brought the country to its knees, we at least have a football team that plays as if it cares."

Even the always compelling RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy abandoned his notorious pessimism, as he joined the mood of celebration as Ireland qualified for their first major tournament in a decade.

"What is critical in sport is your character, the size of your heart and Irish teams have that in abundance," said Dunphy, who even conceded Trapattoni had 'done well' after spending a bulk of the last two years lambasting the dour tactics employed by the Italian. "The rugby team, the Kilkenny hurlers, the Dublin footballers and now the Irish soccer players have shown that they have tremendous character. It's good for our souls and our spirits."

The standing ovation reserved for Ireland captain Robbie Keane at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night suggested the nasty abuse the striker regularly receives from his nation's media is not reciprocated among the bulk of supporters and Dunphy was equally gushing as he paid tribute to the LA Galaxy hit-man.

"I've met Robbie and he is a great lad," he added of the striker who has scored a stunning 53 international goals. "He has been a magnificent footballer for Ireland and even though he doesn't court the media, he deserves this moment as he has worked so hard for it."

Former Ireland striker John Aldridge captured the mood of the nation in his Sunday World newspaper column last weekend as he called for England to be served up to Trapattoni and his team in the Euro 2012 finals next summer.

"I'd love us to get the English once again and try to repeat the famous victory we achieved against them out in Stuttgart during Euro'88," stated Aldo, who was a part of Jack Charlton's side in that last European Championship adventure for Ireland 24 years ago.

"A 'Group of Debt' featuring Italy, Portugal, Greece and Ireland would be a interesting twist in these crippling financial times, but an under-pressure England team denied the services of the suspended Wayne Rooney would be an ideal opponent for Ireland to be up against next summer."

Amid the euphoria, there was plenty of debate over Trapattoni's future and whether his FAI paymasters could justify handing him a massive bonus for qualifying and back it up with another bumper contract, yet these troubled times make such lavish spending a necessity.

We will now be greeted to the sight of 10,000 and more Irish fans finding a way to fund a trip to Poland and Ukraine next summer, abandoning their worries back home and reminding the watching world that our suppressed eagerness to 'enjoy the craic' is still hovering close to the surface.

Our fun loving fans, more than any other, give off a vibe that we have a country to be proud of and the boost of tourism in Ireland should be felt just as it was back in the days when Jack Charlton and his boy were lighting up the world's biggest football stages.

Ireland have not had much to smile about in the last few years, but Trapattoni, his heroic captain Robbie Keane and the team they have led with distinction and pride have succeeded in warming even the most chilled hearts. Such delight may come with a hefty price tag, but it is one well worth paying.

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