AN Arabian night of firsts in Yokohama catapulted the Republic of Ireland's unlikely lads into the last 16 of the World Cup finals and, in doing so, re-wrote the record books.
For the first time in a major tournament finals:
• The Republic's green-clad giants scored three goals;
• Finished with five points from the group phase;
• Won their final group game.
To top it all, rocket man Robbie Keane fired his second goal of the tournament to become the first Irish player to score two goals in the World Cup finals.
After scoring late against Germany, Keane was on the mark inside seven minutes with a stunning volley which should have been the cue for a stroll in the Yokohama park for the Irish.
Within moments of Keane's classy strike, the International Stadium was engulfed by a typhoon and it seemed the Saudis would be swamped but the capacity of the Irish to struggle when they're expected to win surfaced once more.
It required resolute defending and the dramatic introduction of Niall Quinn at half-time to rebuff the men from the desert whose spirit was crushed by a goal from an unlikely source, the unattached Gary Breen, just past the hour mark with a sublime finish from a Staunton free.
Damien Duff added the gloss with a richly deserved third, in the 87th minute, thanks to butter-finger goalkeeping and 15,000 fans began the mother of all parties for their beloved 'Seoul' brothers.
As it turned out, a single-goal win would have been enough as Cameroon failed to cash in the advantage of an extra man for part of an ill-tempered clash with Germany in Shizuoka and eventually imploded, losing 2-0.
In securing their passage to the next phase, the Irish emulated the efforts of the 1990 and 1994 sides, who also survived the opening skirmishes.
In those heady days under Jack Charlton, three teams could progress from groups of four which puts a fresh perspective on the mighty efforts of Mick McCarthy and his merry men.
Drawn in another self-styled ‘Group of Death’, they competed with demons within their own ranks and emerged in the sunlight after bagging a five-point haul against Cameroon, Germany and the Saudis.
A win and two draws in the group phase was beyond the compass of the teams of Euro '88, Italia ‘90 and USA ‘94, none of whom managed more than four points from their three round-robin games.
Now, Seoul beckons and a last 16 clash with either old rivals Spain or South Africa in Suwon, 40 kilometres from the South Korean capital on Sunday next (12.30pm, Irish time).
Under McCarthy, the Irish have yet to play Spain but it's not that long ago when our Iberian friends were finishing ahead of the Irish in the qualifying rounds of the 1990 and 1994 World Cup.
As for Bafana Bafana, they provided the opposition for the final game of the US Cup 2000 in the Giants Stadium where Quinn equalled Frank Stapleton's all-time Irish goals record with the winning goal in a 2-1 result.
Spain, who have rattled in six goals, only need a draw but they'll be going all-out to win to avoid a last 16 match-up with the Germans.
By finishing second, the Irish have an extra day's rest and will play in the cool of the evening here (8.30pm local time), unlike Germany who must play on Saturday in the heat of the afternoon (3.30pm) on the tropical island venue of Seogwipo.
They will arrive in Seoul in the afternoon, local time, and won't get down to serious business until tomorrow. They're entitled to a brief timeout but McCarthy will be eager to get the heads around the enormity of next Sunday's challenge and how it can be achieved
It's early days yet but McCarthy must surely consider re-jigging his line-up as left-back Ian Harte has been sending out distress signals since the tournament started and was substituted for the third successive game yesterday.
There will be a clamour for Duff to be restored to his preferred left-wing berth but McCarthy, conservative by nature, may slot Gary Kelly across to left-back, restore Jason McAteer to the right flank and leave well enough alone.
He is convinced that Quinn, for all his attributes, is not suited to a starting role and is best kept in reserve but the argument for playing Duff on the flank, where he ran amok in the second half last night, is a considerable one,
After a slow-burning start, the Irish have ignited and as they look at the travails of the top teams in the tournament - France out, Portugal, Argentina, and Italy all struggling - they have no reason to feel in any way inferior to the teams left standing in the last 16, with the possible exception of Brazil.
If Senegal and Denmark can give Les Blues the blues, USA strip the Portuguese flanks, England outwit old foes Argentina and Japan roll over mother Russia, who is to say that the fighting Irish can't look Spain, as seems likely, squarely in the face and spit in their eye?
This is already shaping up to be the World Cup of seismic shocks, and the Republic, having scared the lederhosen off the arrogant Germans, should fear no one.
If anything, it's the opposition who should be ill at ease facing them, this marvellous motley crew of mid-ranking players from the Premiership, veterans of '90, and a centre-half in Breen who doesn't have a club!
For McCarthy's marvels, whatever happens now is a bonus as they've already earned the respect of all their fellow competitors and the adulation of the Irish armada of fans, here and at home, for their herculean efforts thus far.
Come what may in Suwon, they can return to Ireland with their heads high, safe in the knowledge that they've matched the efforts of McGrath, Moran, Houghton, Aldridge, Townsend and Co in '90 and '94.
Inevitably, the performances will have captured the minds of ambitious club chairmen and players such as Duff, Holland, Breen and Finnan could find new employment at club level before long.
Financially, the FAI are on a winner too. Through securing a place in the second round, the FAI will receive another €1m from FIFA, bringing their total cut from the finals to almost €4m.
Who knows there could be more in the kitty to come yet!
Rep of Ireland: Shay Given, Steve Finnan, Steve Staunton (captain), Gary Breen, Ian Harte (Niall Quinn 46), Gary Kelly (Jason McAteer 80), Mark Kinsella (Lee Carsley 89), Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff.
Substitutes Not Used: David Connolly, Kenny Cunningham, Richard Dunne, Alan Kelly, Dean Kiely, Clinton Morrison, Andy O'Brien, Steven Reid.
Booked: Steve Staunton.
Goals: Robbie Keane 7', Gary Breen 62', Damien Duff 87'.
Saudi Arabia: Mohammed Al-Daeyea (captain), Mohammed Al-Jahani (Ahmed Al Dossari 78), Redha Tokar, Abdullah Suleiman Al-Zubromawi (Abdallah Al Dossari 68), Fouzi Al-Shehri, Ibrahim Al-Shahrani, Hussein Al-Sulimani, Abdulaziz Al-Khathran (Al Shlhoub 67), Khamis Al-Owairan Al Dossari, Nawaf Al-Temyat, Al-Hassan Al-Yami.
Substitutes Not Used: Obeid Al-Dossary, Omar Al-Ghamdi, Sami Al-Jaber, Abdullah Al-Waked Al-Shahrani, Mansour Al-Thagafi, Babkr, Mohsin Harthi, Mohammed Noor, Mabrouk Zayed.
Booked: Nawaf Al-Temyat.
Referee: Falla Ndoye (Senegal)