Ireland's prospects of emerging from the qualifying tournament of the UEFA Championship of 2000 were subjected to a critical examination first day out when Croatia were confronted at Lansdowne Road before 34,000 spectators on September 5, 1998.
Croatia had thrilled spectators at the World Cup final tournament in France in early Summer by their extravagant football as they charged into the semi-finals under their gracious and inspirational manager, Miroslav Blazevic.
Croatia led France 1-0 that day when Davor Suker scored before they succumbed to the eventual champions as full-back Lilian Thuram scored twice. Croatia went on to finish third in the championship when they beat Netherlands in the play-off for third place.
Playing such talented opposition in Dublin in the first match was calculated to either kill or cure Ireland's UEFA Championship so it must have been a tense occasion for those involved. The result was spectacular for Ireland as they scored twice in the opening 14 minutes and won the game 2-0.
Events conspired to favour Ireland for Croatia were without their three top strikers - Suker, Boksic and Vlaovic. There were obvious signs that they had difficulty recovering the joie-de-vive of their spectacular World Cup tournament.
The game was well advanced before the skilful Boban and Asanovic in midfield got them moving. And their frustration showed as two of their players were sent off in separate incidents in the closing twenty minutes.
Malta travelled to Lansdowne Road on October 14, 1998 as Ireland impatiently sought to build on the momentum created by their invigorating performance and victory over Croatia. This was a team on the move.
Malta were swept aside before an attendance of 34,500 spectators as Robbie Keane provided a tantalising foretaste of what lay ahead with two goals within 19 minutes of kick-off. Roy Keane added a third after 54 minutes, Niall Quinn and Gary Breen completed a 5-0 rout.
Next, Ireland faced a difficult assignment, a visit to Belgrade on November 18, 1998 to play a Yugoslavia team emerging from a period of extraordinary turmoil.
The fall of Communism ultimately led to the disintegration of the Yugoslavia state in the early 90s and successive periods of conflict in the Balkan region resulted in large displacement of people and bitter fighting among different ethnic groups.
The unrest impacted upon all aspects of life, of course, and on the football front it meant a two-year suspension from international competition for Yugoslavia from 1992 as part of a UN sanction.
The lifting of the ban two years later saw the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia now represented by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The break-up saw the emergence of several teams representing the region - Serbia, the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia.
Nationalist feelings were, predictably, running high when Ireland travelled to Belgrade to engage in UEFA Championship action before a noisy and hostile 50,000 spectators in a stadium that fairly rocked with emotion despite freezing cold weather.
Yugoslavia were worldly-wise in football's ways and represented by a players experienced at club and national level. They drew their squad from the top teams in Italy and Spain and were confident after a successful World Cup tournament in 1998.
There they had qualified for the Round of 16 after finishing joint top with Germany in their group. They lost 1-2 to Netherlands in Toulouse to a goal scored two minutes into added time by Edgar Davids.
Ireland fought a stubborn and brave rearguard action but fell to a goal scored after 64 minutes by Predrag Mijatovic of Real Madrid. Ireland had two penalty claims dismissed, one for a tackle by the goalkeeper on Jason McAteer after 53 minutes and another for a handball that was missed by the Swedish referee.
The 19 years old Damien Duff sparkled on Ireland's wing to such an extent that two opponents were yellow carded in separate incidents when forced to stop him by illegal means. Manager Mick McCarthy fielded a team that included a number of Jack Charlton's squad - Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton, Alan McLaughlin, Jason McAteer, Roy Keane, Niall Quinn - as well as Shay Given, Gary Breen, Mark Kinsella and the youthful Duff.
Ireland now faced a long break to their next competitive match because war in the Balkans caused the postponement of several fixtures. Ireland's home match against FYR Macedonia was played on the 9th of June, 1999. They prepared with three friendlies against Paraguay, Sweden and Northern Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
They played Paraguay on February 2nd before 27,600 spectators and won the match impressively 2-0. Denis Irwin converted a penalty in his customary efficient manner in the 37th minute, David Connolly again showed his instinct for goal by adding the second after 74 minutes.
Sweden were also defeated 2-0 on April 28th with a late surge that produced goals from Graham Kavanagh after 75 minutes and Mark Kennedy two minutes later. The match marked the first appearance of 22 years old Stephen Carr of Tottenham Hotspur at right-back, a player who played for Ireland at schoolboy, youth and U21 levels.
The attendance dropped to 12,100 when Northern Ireland caused an upset by winning 1-0 on May 29th. The small attendance was especially disappointing as the match was staged to help raise funds for the victims of the appalling Omagh tragedy in which 29 people died and 220 were injured when a car bomb exploded on the side of the street in the middle of the town in Co. Tyrone.
The complication as regards the UEFA Championship match with FYR Macedonia on June 9th was the fact that the players were well into their holiday from the club season at this point. Invariably it can be difficult after a long season to recover form after an inevitable relaxation of intensity from the club scene.
FYR Macedonia, as ever, proved tenacious and difficult opposition and Ireland had to work hard for their 1-0 win. The goal arrived after 60 minutes when Niall Quinn scored and welcome it was. Lee Carsley was in midfield, Stephen Carr at full-back while Robbie Keane and Damien Duff were also starters.
The civil unrest and the many reports of conflict emanating from the Western Balkan region meant the visit of Yugoslavia on September 1st, 1999 drew intervention at a political level in Dublin. War in the Kosovo region, which had been part of the former Communist state of Yugoslavia, led to the involvement of NATO when their forces attacked Yugoslavia from March 24, 1999 to June 11, 1999.
In consequence the decision was taken that there would be no customary pre-match reception for visiting officials and Cabinet Ministers decided to boycott the match. Despite the risk of a hefty fine by UEFA, the FAI had little option but to decide there would be no official greeting of the teams at Lansdowne Road, no Yugoslav flag would be flown at the Stadium and the visitors' national anthem would not be played.
Indeed there was anger among the football family that UEFA was forcing the Republic to go ahead with the fixture in the first place. Manager Mick McCarthy said he and the players feel the decision to proceed was morally wrong against the backdrop of the Kosovo crisis.
The FAI also banned live television coverage of the game to Yugoslavia for there was a determination there would be no propaganda coup for Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, a former President of Serbia and President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000.
Milosevic conducted his own defence in a five-year long trial in the Hague for alleged war crimes. The trial ended without a verdict when he died of a heart attack on March 11, 2006 in his prison cell.
"My players feel very strongly and think it is morally wrong to play this game and we will take the field under protest," said Irish boss, Mick McCarthy.
The conflict in the Balkan region had led to the FAI demanding the postponement of the UEFA qualifying match against FYR Macedonia two months previously when NATO were just beginning their bombing of neighbouring Yugoslavia and the qualifying tournament was generally disrupted by the events.
The disruption led to UEFA allowing Yugoslavia play a home match against Malta in Greece. This, in turn, led to a failed attempt by Ireland to have the 0-1 loss they suffered in Belgrade on November 18, 1998 cancelled and the match replayed at a neutral venue.
UEFA had set up a six-man Task Force to deal with the impact of the Kosovo crisis on football, and in insisting that the match against Yugoslavia in Dublin would go ahead as planned a spokesman said: ''We've already had to postpone four games in the Republic of Ireland's group and we can't keep doing that indefinitely.
The attendance was 34,400 and they suffered through a tense and very competitive match as Yugoslavia showed all the qualities you would expect of an experienced, talented team. Ireland did extremely well to win 2-1 - Robbie Keane scored in the 54th minute, Stankovic equalised after 61 minutes and Mark Kennedy conjured up a precious winner in the 70th minute.
Three days later the Republic faced yet another demanding test when they confronted Croatia in Zagreb. The contest for qualification for the 2000 UEFA finals was now white-hot in its intensity and Croatia needed a win and obviously wanted to put matters right after their loss in Dublin.
McCarthy had Alan Kelly in goal and fronting him he had defenders Stephen Carr, Gary Breen, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton with five across the middle in Gary Kelly, Mark Kinsella, Lee Carsley, alan McLoughlin and Damien Duff with Tony Cascarino the lone striker.
The match was hot and hugely competitive and Ireland went within an ace of achieving a critically important draw. They spent long, agonising periods defending defiantly but fell to a goal in the 94th minute from Davor Suker.
The postponements earlier in the competition meant the matches came quickly as UEFA pushed fixtures on with time running out. Ireland travelled on from Croatia to play Malta in the Ta'Qali Stadium on September 8th 1999 - their third Championship match in eight days.
Ireland made light of the excessive heat - the match kicked off in 30 degrees - and debilitating humidity in the opening half hour and raced into a 2-0 lead in sparkling style. Robbie Keane, at 19 years looking every inch the perfect striker, combined with Niall Quinn to hammer home a beauty after 13 minutes and Gary Breen rose high to head in a cross from Steve Staunton with great authority.
The weather conditions and the heavy schedule of matches took a toll, however, and Ireland lost their verve and vigour after the break. Malta grew in strength and ambition as Ireland drew progressively deeper in defence of their lead and the match was level as Malta scored after 62 minutes and claimed an equaliser from the penalty spot after 68. Steve Staunton won it with a classic strike from a free 25 yards out in the 72nd minute.
This left Ireland within touching distance of qualifying automatically for the finals in Holland/Belgium. They travelled to Skopje to play Macedonia on October 9, 1999, knowing that a win would see them win the group and qualify for their first UEFA finals since Jack Charlton's breakthrough in 1988.
Everything looked to be proceeding as planned as Niall Quinn put Ireland into the lead after just 18 minutes. Ireland were playing with real confidence after making such progress in so difficult a qualifying group but they suffered the huge disappointment of losing their automatic qualification in added time, seconds before the final whistle.
There was just time for Macedonia to take a last corner and full-back Stavrevski shocked Ireland when he charged forward to head in the equaliser from just inside the penalty area and opposite the near post.
This was a blow that Ireland did not deserve and it meant they once again faced a play-off after finishing second on 16 points to Yugoslavia, winners with 17. Croatia were third on 15 and Ireland had knocked the tyeam that had finished third in the World Cup of 1998 out of the competition. The draw for the play-offs saw Ireland handed a two-legged contest with Turkey.
The first leg drew 33,610 spectators to Lansdowne Road on November 13, 1999 and manager McCarthy had Stephen Carr, Gary Breen, Kenny Cunningham, Denis Irwin in front of Alan Kelly. Rory Delap was brought into midfield alongside Roy Keane, Lee Carsley and Kevin Kilbane with Robbie Keane and Tony Cascarino up front.
The match was vigorously fought and very tight. Ireland took what promised to be a critical lead after a tense 79 minutes when Robbie Keane again scored. But a penalty decision for handball against Lee Carsley gave Tayfur an equaliser four minutes later and Turkey had the edge with a vital away goal.
They walked away with a further advantage for Ireland's cause was not helped when Robbie Keane picked up a yellow card. It was his second of the tournament and meant he was ruled out of the return which was played just four days later.
Turkey were not in helpful mood for they nominated the provincial city of Bursa as the venue for the second leg. Ireland faced a demanding journey by plane to Istanbul, a bus journey to a ferry port and then a bumpy hour-long crossing of the Sea of Marmara by ferry to Bursa.
Dean Kiely had replaced the injured goalkeeper Alan Kelly after 61 minutes of the first leg and had played with admirable confidence and authority. Kiely was in goal for the return leg and he played brilliantly in a scoreless game.
Turkey dominated Ireland's midfield as Ireland failed to find the goal they needed. So they were eliminated by the narrowest of margins and the mood within the Irish part was not helped by the stormy seas that ensured their ferry tossed and turned like a dervish on the return journey.
The Irish set out for home immediately after the match and one felt the sea-sickness that drove many in the party retching to the railings on the stormy Sea of Marmara was exaggerated by the acute disappointment churning deep inside.