No More Fun and Games Now, Lads: Previewing France vs. The Republic of Ireland
For most of their history, the Republic of Ireland have been more renowned for their fans than their football. When they play France on Sunday afternoon, it’s time for that to change.
EPA Images/Shawn Thew
When the Republic of Ireland take to the field against France at the Stade des Lumières on Sunday afternoon, they will be huge underdogs. They face the tournament hosts in a partisan stadium and – looking at the two teams objectively – the Irish have nothing like the quality of the French. Didier Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches in his squad, from the finesse of Dimitri Payet to the razor-sharp attacking genius of Antoine Griezmann, the grit of Blaise Matuidi to the boisterous, barrelling presence of Olivier Giroud. The Irish have Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh and Darryl Murphy, as well as a couple of lads who play for Norwich City. There's a conspicuous imbalance in talent between with two sides, to say the least.
Truth be told, the Republic have never been known for playing the best football. That certainly didn't change in their opening matches against Sweden and Belgium, in which they showed impudence and pluck but little to suggest they could progress to the Round of 16. As has always been the way, the Irish were lauded for their fans more than anything else. There was drinking, there was craic, there were lads singing along to Abba and Westlife and occasionally getting their mickeys out while jigging about on the top of moving vehicles. The melodic strains of lilting Gaelic sing-songs certainly made for more pleasant listening than the discordant Anglo-Saxon howls coming from the streets of Marseille and Lille, and so – by virtue of not beating each other about the head with barstools – Ireland supporters were praised to the heavens on both sides of the Irish sea.
For the first two games of Euro 2016, it was business as usual for the Republic. There was very little achieved on the pitch, while the party on the streets continued regardless. Coming along for the craic has never been enough for the hardliners in the Irish camp, however. In an echo of his anger and frustration over Ireland's attitude at the 2002 World Cup, Roy Keane called on the players to "show some balls" ahead of their crunch clash with Italy. Surprisingly, against one of the best sides at the tournament, they did exactly that.
Despite the fact that Antonio Conte made several changes to his line-up, Ireland's win over the Italians felt like a watershed moment. The Irish played with grit, nous and genuine tenacity, and won in remarkably Italian fashion as a result. The Azzuri might not have been at full strength but, nonetheless, they were widely expected to send the Republic packing. Speaking after the game, Martin O'Neill said: "Some players have come of age in the last two years, and everyone in the squad knows never to give up." The result proved that there is more to Irish football than novelty Guinness hats and 'The Fields of Athenry'. The Republic went up against a far superior team on paper and, by grace of being hardy, canny and well-organised, they came out on top.
Naturally, then, the Italy win should serve as the blueprint for the France game. From Hungary to Iceland, Wales to Slovakia, the most cohesive teams at the tournament have been the biggest overachievers. The French will doubtlessly dominate the ball, but Ireland have to be clever enough not to allow them to dictate the pace of play. Against the Italians, Martin O'Neill's men managed to have 48% possession. That statistic is bound to be considerably lower against Les Bleus, and the Irish must be prepared to niggle, nag and negate their opponents' talents accordingly.
When it comes to the French, overconfidence could be a killer. The team flattered to deceive during the group stage, drawing with a lacklustre Switzerland after narrowly defeating Romania and Albania late on. The French have only led for 17 minutes during their first three games, less than all three of the teams they played in Group A. Nonetheless, some of their squad will consider victory over the Republic a given. If the Irish can exploit that presumption, Deschamps' side could find themselves bitterly frustrated.
The Republic will have extra motivation against France, of course, with memories of Thierry Henry's infamous handball still fresh in the collective memory. Still, it would pay for the Irish to stay calm and collected. As they were in the Italy match, O'Neill's men need to be calculating, measured and meticulous in the pursuit of their ultimate goal.
The time for fun and games is over, now. This is a chance for the Republic of Ireland to change their image once and for all. It's all well and good to have one of the best fanbases in the international game but, at some point, the football has to speak for itself. If Ireland came of age against Italy, their clash with France could see them reach their prime.