A Different Week – Home Nations fall short

In the recent build up to Word Cup mania, last-gasp hatchet jobs and struggles to reach the finish-line have seen teams along the ilk of Argentina and Portugal struggle to qualify.

If anything could be said regarding this, it would be that keeping form is never as easy as pundits make out, especially for the smaller squads that were vying for qualification. However, that does not appease the fans that want success and World Cup participation. Expectation in England has always been high, but Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have also been under pressure from fans and media alike to make that progressive step past the group qualifying stages.

So when the Republic of Ireland went 1-0 up in the second leg of the play-offs, media headlines where screaming an upset and Irish glory, as were the fans. The first leg in Dublin had seen a cagey affair with the French holding a slender one goal advantage heading to the decider in Paris, and so when Robbie Keane pegged the score-line back to level terms, the stands exploded as finally some hope was given that perhaps the Irish were not as down and out as everyone thought. Most expected this game to be a task too many for Giovanni Trapattoni’s side, however they held their own and have every reason to be dismayed by the final result.

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Obviously this is in reference to the slightly less iconic ‘Hand of God 2’, duplicating Diego Maradona’s controversy as Thierry Henry handballed and crossed for William Gallas to put France ahead after 104 minutes in extra time. Even the most neutral of observers could not help but feel sorry for the men in white and green as they overcame the difficulties derived from playing against one of the best teams of the world, only to be put out by an obvious and blatant foul.

What the referee saw was certainly a question mark, as nobody else on the pitch could fail to recognise the deliberate hand knock-down from Henry. On the subject, the Barcelona striker said: “It was handball, but that is the subject for the referee.” and of course he is right. In the heat of the game, instinctively using a hand is understandable (if not allowed) and it is up to the officials to stop it from happening.

This then could explain the response from the Republic of Ireland Prime Minister and FA who have called upon FIFA for a replay of the match, based on erroneous officiating that dashed hopes of Irish progression to the final stages of the World Cup. In response, FIFA have issued a statement: “(refereeing) decisions are final unless stipulated in the FIFA Disciplinary Code.” However the incident has left a bitter taste upon the tongues of the Irish faithful who were robbed of the chance for penalties in Paris.

However, at the very least the players did their nation proud. They played well and shook France for long periods, looking more than able to pick up an unlikely victory. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Scotland.

It has to be said that Scotland were mildly optimistic approaching their group qualification route. However, after only three wins in 14 matches by George Burley’s men, the manager received the axe. After failure to qualify for the World Cup Finals, the Scottish board delivered a vote of confidence to George Burley despite frenetic pressure from fans to sack the man that had previously been heckled throughout Scotland’s last three qualifiers. However, it was ironically a friendly that bowed to media pressure and forced a beleaguered Burley to walk away from a national managing career in tatters.

Wales thumped a weary Scottish side that meekly rolled over against an inexperienced and new line-up. Craig Bellamy was among several key first-team absentees for Wales, and yet this failed to inhibit a calm and assured performance against a side that are still struggling to bond as a team. A 3-0 score-line embarrassed Scotland and Burley was sacked, much to the fans delight.

Now Scotland have the task of finding a new manager before March, when they face the Czech Republic. A World Cup exit gives the Scots an extensive respite from which the board has time to search for the right man, and betting companies are already shortening the odds on Walter Smith. The former Scotland manager’s contract expires with Rangers in January and most people are tipping him for the hotseat.

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