Inept decision ruined Ireland’s World Cup hopes
The World Cup competition of 2010 produced many highlights for the Republic of Ireland but will inevitably always be associated with the controversial manner in which France qualified at Ireland's expense in a play-off for the finals in South Africa.
The extraordinary failure of the referee and his team of officials to see Thierry Henry handle the ball, not once but twice, in the critical moments before William Gallas scored France's decisive goal in extra time of the second leg of the play-off in the Stade de France will forever remain a mystery.
It will, needless to say, be an enduring source of anger for Ireland - like a thorn under a finger-nail - for it had a profound influence on the trend of a match that had firmly and consistently been swinging in Ireland's favour.
Had Ireland capitalised upon the scoring opportunities they created in the 90 minutes before extra-time they would not, of course, have been so vulnerable. They would have qualified for the finals in triumph had they taken just one more of a series of opportunities they crafted with vibrant, vigorous, football after Robbie Keane had put them in front on the night and level on aggregate.
"The goal that should not have been" mocked their excellence, filled France with new confidence and arrived in such infuriating a manner as to grievously damage Ireland's sense of optimism and ambition.
How could they rise above the crippling sense of frustration and injustice in the 16 minutes that remained ? This was wrong, grievously wrong, and Ireland were unable, in the second half of extra time, to put it right. They drew on the night 1-1 after 120 minutes and lost the tie 1-2 on aggregate.
So a World Cup campaign that had opened on a cautious note on September 3rd, 2008, with a tentative 2-1 win over Georgia in Mainz, Germany, and was processed with growing assurance over ten qualifying matches ended exasperatingly.
And while it is impossible to free any review of the past 15 months of competitive action from the ultimate bitterness of the Stade de France, it would be to do Giovanni Trapattoni and his squad a dis-service not to finger-point at least some of the many advances that were made, the many positives that emerged.
The first and most enduring trend that became apparent was the very obvious compatibility between Ireland's youthful squad of players and Giovanni Trapattoni, one of the most senior team managers still active on the international scene. The respect between the two was freely and regularly acknowledged by both parties.
Trapattoni's record of achievement is, of course, hugely impressive - he has been described as the most successful football manager in the game. Had he succeeded in steering Ireland to the World Cup finals at his first attempt, this would surely have stood comparison with his most spectacular successes.
Trapattoni took charge of Ireland's squad just four months before Ireland were plunged into competitive World Cup action in September 2008. His only opportunity to work with his squad was in training camp in Portugal in May. They played a number of matches against local sides in the course of an intensive period of training.
The experience he gained there, the coaching and training he supervised there, the system he introduced there, the players he grew to know and trust there, formed the basis of Ireland's advancement and development through the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Trapattoni's impact was obviously enhanced by Marco Tardelli and Liam Brady, who brought still more experience and know-how to the task of developing Ireland's team as assistant managers. And in a remarkably short time, Ireland went into competition against Georgia with a measured game plan that was the template for their campaign.
The team selection changed only marginally for the rest of the tournament and the most important changes were enforced. Steve Finnan and Steven Reid played against Georgia and a week later against Montenegro but were ruled out by injuries for the remaining qualifying matches.
Ireland achieved the notable feat of going through the qualifying series of ten matches unbeaten. They won four of those matches and finished in second place above the number two seeds in their group, Bulgaria.
On the way they achieved a number of very satisfying results - two draws with the reigning World Cup champions, Italy, the most notable. They also achieved two draws with Bulgaria that flew in the face of history for Ireland have always found games in Sofia particularly challenging. And they dealt authoritatively with Cyprus who had ruined Ireland's chances in the UEFA Championship of 2008.
The qualifying campaign was remarkable for the enduring excellence of Shay Given in goal, the consistency and authority of the formidable Richard Dunne at centre-back, the calm assurance and capability of John O'Shea and Kevin Kilbane, the brilliant goals of Robbie Keane, the courage and hard work of Kevin Doyle, the sparkling football of Damien Duff.
Trapattoni ensured the framework of the team always remained the same, the pattern of play remained the same. With familiarity there came a growing understanding and effectiveness in Ireland's play that was most graphically illustrated when Ireland travelled to Paris to play France in the second leg of the play-off. That night they touched a peak of performance.
Trapattoni continued to search for individual alternatives as he sought to extend his squad of capable international players. He used friendly matches against Poland, South Africa and Australia to experiment with a number of different personnel and worked continuously to fill the team with confidence and belief.
The campaign identified a number of extremely able players and provided them with precious experience of football at this level - Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson, Liam Lawrence, Stephen Hunt, Sean St. Ledger, Paul McShane, Stephen Kelly, Andrew Keogh, Leon Best, Caleb Folan, Shane Long, Noel Hunt.
The work will go on. The FAI pursued the issue of France's decisive goal as, indeed, they were obliged to do in fairness to the management staff, the players and the fans but to no avail. By highlighting the issue they have helped initiate an on-going debate on the values of new technology and the merits, or otherwise, of its application to a game that continues to evolve.
Giovanni Trapattoni and his team have committed to the job for a further two years and look forward now with some eagerness and undoubted optimism to the draw in February 2010 of the UEFA Championship of 2012.
The bitter consequences of Ireland's elimination from the World Cup in such a contentious manner will not be forgotten. Unfortunately the final competition in South Africa next summer will ensure that it remains to the forefront of our minds.
But Ireland's international team must concentrate on building on the advances that were made in the qualifying tournament.
They must take confidence and encouragement from their achievement in negotiating a tricky and challenging qualifying tournament without loss and use the performance level they reached in the play-off in Paris as the benchmark for the future.