We played like lions, but South Africa will miss a hell of a guest
BRAVE, brave, magnificent Ireland. Like lions, they stood up and went for it and by God they delivered all we could have asked for.
But in the end, after a 120 minute epic, what could they do? Cheated already by FIFA who changed the rules to give the bigger teams an easier passage, they were cheated once more by a goal which clearly should not have stood.
The French were embarrassed for sure. At the end they played loud rock music to drown out the singing of the 15,000 travelling Irish fans, their own supporters muted.
Ireland were simply heroic. They gave everything and at the end that included the shirts on their backs and their boots, which they threw to the Irish fans.
When Robbie Keane rolled the ball into the French net on 33 minutes, hope became belief and we were quite ridiculously looking for our passports for next summer.
When Damian Duff was sent clear on 60 minutes, South Africa hovered into view, so close you could smell the sea air in Cape Town, but Duff's shot was somehow saved.
Eyes peeping out behind the hands stuff. Crazy, amazing scenes. The majestic Stade de France stuffed to the rafters with celebrating Irish men and a woman dancing a delirious jig.
For 90 minutes we played like we were the former World champions, stroking the ball around, whipping in crosses and coming within inches of a precious second goal.
We dreamed and dreamed again. We had the chances to grab the lot.
There was Duffer's attempt, O'Shea lashed over from ten yards out then Robbie rounded the French keeper after 72 minutes but he let it run a yard to far. Heart-busting stuff.
We needed that slice of luck and dammit, we just didn't get it. The French, much maligned and booed off the pitch at half time in the regulation 90 minutes, literally nicked it.
Like master burglars, after being bossed and tossed around their own stadium by a superb, defiant Irish team, France stole the win in extra time.
And stole would be the operative word.
Replays would show striker Thierry Henry, standing in a clear offside position, TWICE handled the ball as he passed it to William Gallas who headed it home.
In a referring decision by Swede Martin Hansson which will now go down in infamy, the no-good goal stood, Ireland were out.
"Je ne regrette rien" (No, no regrets!) goes the song and Ireland (the ref aside) will have none, having given everything for themselves, the 15,000 fans in the Stade de France and for everyone at home.
In some ways the French were ready this time. A French flag bunged under every seat and a rather forceful stadium announcer telling fans when to wave it.
Visitors to Croke Park would hardly need lessons in cheering but it seems the French did last night.
"I'm going to shout 'Allez les bleus' and then you follow," bellowed the announcer before kick-off.
As knots of Irish fans launched into "C'mon you Boys in Green" the irritant with the mike became even louder as he urged the French fans to drown out 'les verts.'
Our own man with the mike, RTE commentator George Hamilton sipped a Coke before the game and hoped for the best. "I could hear the Irish singing coming up from the Metro. I hope they get what they came for."
The journey ended just before 11.30pm, all hope finally extinguished.
Maybe it was inevitable. We'd imagined ourselves into a place where hope existed for several days, where we believed it might just be possible.
And why not? The doom- mongers who predicted Ireland's demise were already dancing on Trapattoni's after the defeat in Croke Park but at least he gave us a shot.
The fans had done their bit too, filling Paris with a riotous dose of green, drinking all the beer in the city and generally having a whale of a time. Earlier yesterday the Eiffel Tower was the place where the party started. Under its four enormous steel struts yesterday afternoon, almost 500 Irish fans danced an afternoon jig. Lines of Irish supporters had emptied all the local shops of beer and pretty much everything else and transported the lot to Place de la Eiffel for the impromptu celebration.
As American tourists queued for the trip to the top of this most iconic of landmarks, the Irish fans sang "It used to be French, now it's Irish, the Eiffel Tower, the Eiffel Tower."
"The biggest of nights" read the headline in French sports newspaper ''L'Equipe, summing up the nervy sense of anticipation felt all week by people everywhere.
In the paper 'Le Figaro', not normally moved to cover much in the way of sport, a whole page was given to the cost of failing to qualify.
It made sober reading. Ireland's agonising failure to qualify for South Africa means a mammoth lost €20m in bonuses and money from television rights.
As the thousands of Irish fans trooped out to the Metro in Saint Denis, heartsick, exhausted but proud, you also knew South Africa has missed out on one hell of a party guest.
After the game Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: "To a man, they did Ireland proud."
He congratulated the Irish team on a "most courageous performance".