Thursday 22 February 2018

The farmer's son revels in his new mission of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic was in awe of Trapattoni on Friday, writes Cathal Dervan

A LL Slaven Bilic was short of doing was asking for an autograph as he stood alongside Vicente Del Bosque from Spain and Cesare Prandelli from Italy, the managers of the last two World Cup winners, and his own personal favourite -- Giovanni Trapattoni of Ireland.

A tough-as-nails Premiership defender in his West Ham days, Bilic was as meek as a lamb as his hands, sweaty with nerves, accepted the microphone. "I am privileged to be alongside these generals," said the Croatia coach, a man almost half Trap's age. Trapattoni, arms crossed, broke into a smile as a giddy Bilic paid homage. Our Italian was centre stage and loving it. Trap could relax and enjoy the spectacle without any worries about the end result as Kiev's Palace of the Arts became his sporting night at the opera.

One of the Italian's pet sayings in Trappish -- his version of Pidgin English -- is to suggest that football fans in search of entertainment should go to La Scala in Milan for the performance. His game is all about the end result. His tactics are the reason why he was standing on that podium alongside Bilic, Prandelli and Del Bosque on Friday.

For Irish football, Trapattoni was the show at the country's first draw in a decade. For many in the makeshift press conference room dedicated to Group C contestants at the 2012 European Championships, Trapattoni was the entertainment. He was definitely the big draw, even next to the coach who steered the Spanish to the European and World titles.

"I make one promise to the Ireland supporters -- we will do our very best for them next summer, we will win for them!" declared Trapattoni.

The smile never left his face. The world champions may await next June but fear is not in his vocabulary. Not in any language. "Of course, Spain are a great side and worthy World Cup winners but we must be confident of our own strengths and play our own game. Every game is a new challenge," he insisted.

The fourth anniversary of his arrival as Ireland manager has yet to dawn but Trapattoni is back where he wants to be. The farmer's son is making the silk purse from the sow's ear.

The build-up to the fumbling with the balls in the auditorium on Friday told us all we need to know about Irish football's current world standing. As a prelude to the main event, UEFA and their match ball sponsors adidas paraded a player from each of the 13 teams who have won this championship.

Trapattoni applauded warmly as greats of the game like Italy's Rivera, France's Zidane, Spain's Luis Suarez, Denmark's Schmeichel and Russia's Ponedelnik, the winning scorer in the very first final, arrived on stage with an authentic ball from their own tournament history. The victory call stretched from Russia in 1960 to Spain in 2008. Not alone were Ireland's Euro '88 patriots nowhere to be seen, one member of the small travelling Irish media wasn't even born when Ray Houghton scored against England in Stuttgart.

FAI chief executive John Delaney can make withdrawals from a memory bank which stretches a bit further but he too understands the significance of the Republic's return to this sort of stage.

"I was invited to speak at my old school a few weeks ago and it struck me from talking to the kids, how many of them had never seen Ireland play in a major finals," said Delaney as the dust settled on Friday night's draw.

"The kids who were six and seven when we were in Japan and Korea have no real memory of that tournament and anyone younger than them has no memory of it at all. That's why this is going to be a special time. Those kids will see how big it is now to have an Ireland team on a world stage.

"People talk about the rugby team and Gaelic teams and it is no secret that the rugby team have had great success in recent years. But they don't have to qualify. GAA teams don't play world champions like we do. It is hard for us but we are judged the same so it is important that we get to these tournaments, important for everyone.

"Everywhere I have gone since we qualified, people have wanted to stop and talk about the Euros and that is also hugely significant for Irish football and for the country.

"There is no hiding from the fact that the financial benefits are huge but you can't really put a value on something like this in terms of the emotional impact on the country, given the difficult times we currently live in.

"The great thing is that we definitively know where we are going and the fans can start talking to their credit unions, they can start booking the flights and buying the camper vans. We are back and it will be huge. Anyone who has been at a championship with Ireland before will know that there is no better feeling than turning to face the tricolour when the anthem is played on a foreign field."

Finances will be important to the fans and Poland will help. Gdansk and Poznan, both well known to Irish teams and FAI officials in the past, are a far more attractive proposition on all fronts than any of the four cities that will host games in the Ukraine.

But, for all the talk of national emotion and a feelgood factor next summer, the money will do the FAI and their Aviva Stadium debt no harm at all.

"We are already looking at an €8 million gross figure thanks to qualification. If we draw a game in Poland then we will receive another half a million. If you win, it's a million euros," said Delaney.

"Finish third in the group and we will get an extra million. Reach the quarter-finals, which the manager has consistently said is his target since we qualified, and we get another two million. The money is important and it is a huge boost to the game in Ireland, but I will say it again -- the most pleasing element of all of this is we're in it, Irish football is back on this stage."

Trapattoni is back too. Still scarred by the 2002 World Cup and his experiences against co-hosts South Korea, he also holds a grudge against the Euros going back to Portugal eight years ago when Denmark and Sweden played out a convenient 2-2 draw in their final pool game at Italy's expense. The potential irony wasn't lost on the Ireland boss as he answered the last of a long line of questions in the Palace of the Arts.

So what will happen if Ireland and Italy need a draw in Poznan on June 18 to do damage to Spain and Croatia in Group C?

"I have been there before, remember," he smiled. "Maybe it could happen again and this time I will be on the right side of it."

Don't bet against it.

Sunday Indo Sport

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