The Republic of Ireland are back at the Stade de France for what has the feel of a do-or-die match. What could possibly go wrong? The Irish have Sweden in the opening tie of their Euro 2016 group phase campaign and the sense of anticipation, as the manager, Martin O’Neill, said on Sunday, is palpable. And yet the demons lurk. The choice of venue has seen to that.
With apologies to Ireland fans, who have attempted to blot out the events of 18 November 2009 – a quick recap. The previous visit to Stade de France on Paris’s north side was for the second leg of the 2010 World Cup play-off against France and it was the game that was decided by the Hand of Gaul, or however Thierry Henry’s double handball in extra-time is best described, which helped to set up William Gallas’s decisive goal.
France advanced to the finals in South Africa (where they ended up creating a different kind of scandal), while Ireland were left to rage and protest. They called for a replay and even suggested they should be included as a 33rd team at the World Cup. Those requests were only ever going to end one way and then there was the issue of the €5m payment that Fifa made to the Football Association of Ireland. It was, supposedly, to help with the construction of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin but it was hard to see it as anything other than hush money.
There are a handful of survivors from Paris 2009 in O’Neill’s squad – Robbie Keane, Shay Given, John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Aiden McGeady, with only O’Shea and Whelan likely to start against Sweden. The bitter taste might never truly go away and the challenge for them, together with O’Neill and the rest of the current players, is to shape a happier conclusion this time.
Keane was asked by a French journalist about the play-off and he claimed he had “forgotten about it until you brought it up”, which seemed remarkable but also illustrated the narrowness of Ireland’s focus on Sweden. “You asked me the question: ‘Do I remember it?’ Clearly, I remember it,” Keane said. “But you have to forget about it. This is a completely different situation.”
Ireland have previously qualified for only two European Championship tournaments – 1988 and 2012 – and so any game at a finals is, obviously, of mammoth importance. But the dynamics of the Sweden tie, and the wider picture in the group and the tournament, have lent this one an air of seismic opportunity.
With the group favourites, Belgium and Italy, lying in wait, both Ireland and Sweden know how greatly a victory would enhance their prospects. With four third-placed teams from the six groups advancing to the last 16, one win might prove sufficient. On the other hand, a defeat – or even a draw – would make things rather more difficult. It is easy to present this meeting as a kind of shootout.
Inevitably there has been a good deal of focus on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s striker and larger-than-life talisman, and O’Neill described him as “one of the best in Europe, if not the world”. O’Neill has a key decision to make in central defence and, although he has kept his cards close to his chest, it is expected that he will start with Blackburn Rovers’ Shane Duffy alongside O’Shea. Duffy has three caps to his name. What an occasion it stands to be for him. The Sweden winger Emil Forsberg is likely to cause problems.
It will be about how Ireland impose themselves. They enter with bad memories, too, from their last European Championship, when they lost all three of their ties in Poland under Giovanni Trapattoni, but they believe that it can be different this time.
O’Neill has brought a more relaxed approach to the championship, having afforded his players a couple of weekends off, for example, before they travelled to their base in Versailles last Wednesday. Under Trapattoni there was often rigidity; with O’Neill things seem more expansive. It was interesting to hear the Sweden midfielder Kim Kallstrom say that Ireland were “now playing a more technical passing game”. Their spirit is excellent although, as Keane said, it was the same at Euro 2012.
Sweden’s scouts have identified the striker Shane Long as Ireland’s dangerman while they are also wary of the threat from set pieces, where Robbie Brady, the converted left-back, can deliver with precision. It should be noted that Sweden have had problems on defensive set pieces to the point where the appointment of a specialist coach in the area has been discussed.
Brady is particularly well known to one Sweden player – the left-back Martin Olsson, who plays alongside him at Norwich City, as does the Ireland playmaker Wes Hoolahan. “Brady has been saying that they are going to send us home and they will be the ones booking our tickets,” Olsson said with a smile. “There’s been a lot about playing rough on Zlatan and how they are going to win 3-0.”
Irish and Swedish supporters have begun to mass in Paris and there promises to be tremendous noise and colour, over and above the tension. “It’s a big occasion,” O’Neill said. “We have spent some time trying to get here, we’ve made it and so you want to make a mark. It’s an emotional type of game and, if we score a few goals, I’ll be joining the players in showing emotion. They can deal with it and we’re looking forward to the game immensely. We deserve to be here, so let’s try to do something about it now we are here.”
Back in 2009 it was a Swedish referee who failed to spot Henry’s handball. Ireland intend to break free from their traumatic past.
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