Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The most unpopular man in Ireland

    Well the World Cup hasn't even started yet, and already we've got controversy.

    If you were to ask a professional footballer - any professional footballer - what would be his dream, chances are he would say one thing: to lead my country at a World Cup. Very, very few players ever get to do that, and even in these days of ever-spiralling wages and personal fame, being captain of your country is a special thing. Ask David Beckham, or Marcel Desailly - you can have all the millions of dollars you want sat in your bank account, but true adoration is something that only comes to those held up as the best their country has to offer.

    Take Michael Owen as an example. He is the current European Footballer of the Year, is a millionaire several times over, and has won numerous trophies with Liverpool. What is his proudest achievement to date? Captaining his country in a meaningless friendly against Paraguay. So why on earth - no, how dare - Roy Keane walk out on Ireland just eight days before the World Cup starts, when he had been selected to captain his country at the biggest football event ever?

    Keane is undoubtedly a tremendous player, but his scurrilous actions over the past few days will be his epitaph of shame for years to come. How can a man who sells himself as a committed, proud, cultured midfielder simply up sticks and walk out of the World Cup just because he has had a disagreement with a goalkeeping coach? How can this be the same man who had the temerity to criticise his own fans (and the people who pay his colossal wages) for failing to show passion and commitment? How can he ever look them in the face again, now he has shown just how much commitment he really has?

    Why has Keane done this? Well he is unhappy with the way the Irish team is run. He was first unhappy last year because he was asked to sit in economy class on the way to an international match. Then he was unhappy because of the way Ireland were playing - regardless of the fact that they were winning, beating Holland into the bargain. Then he had to travel to Ireland for a pre-World Cup get-together. 'Why should I do that?' he said. Then he missed Niall Quinn's testimonial match where all the profits were going to charity. 'He might get injured,' mumbled his apologists.

    Next he caught the plane to Saipan for Ireland's last training camp before the World Cup started. 'I'm not playing on that training pitch' he complained, 'it looks like a car park'. This was the final straw for the increasingly exasperated Irish coaching staff. Regardless if Keane was one of the few world-class players they had, Packie Bonner and Mick McCarthy were not going to take any more primaddona antics from him. 'Do your talking on the pitch' he was told, 'stop complaining and stop destroying the morale of the squad'. 'I'm going home if you're going to talk to me like that' cried Keane, and with that he was on the first flight back to Europe.

    So Ireland are going to have to play at the World Cup without their most important player. From being a team with a strong chance of winning their group, and hopes of playing Italy in another World Cup quarter final, Ireland have suddenly become a ragbag of conflict and argument. They still have some amazing talent - Robbie Keane and Damien Duff springing to mind straight away - but the loss of a player of Roy Keane's ability, experience at the highest level and stature would be a big blow for even France to cover, let alone Ireland.

    Following a dreamlike run of success in the qualifiers, Ireland were preparing to shock the world this summer. Lots of commentators were predicting that Cameroon and Germany would be fighting for top spot in the group when the draw was made in Busan last December. But, more perceptive thinkers were pointing out something else - that Ireland had the spirit and gameplan to beat anyone in Japan and Korea, and while few people seriously thought they could win the whole competition, lots of people were putting sizable bets on Ireland being in the last 16 or even the last 8. Now you have to think that optimism is over. Keane has single-handedly decimated Ireland's morale and spirit.

    That has been the key to Ireland's recent success: team spirit. Ireland fully expected to win every game they played, no matter who it was against, be it the USA, Czech Republic, Russia or Holland. And when they failed to beat someone (like when Portugal were 'only' held to a draw) Irish fans wanted to know why. Ireland had a strong, safe defence, searing pace and skill down the flanks, clinical finishing up front, and Keane working away in midfield. Now they have to rely on Matt Holland of newly relegated Ipswich Town to drive the midfield. It's not quite the same option is it?

    It is a quite shocking, inexcusable move by Keane, that has defeated his country before a ball is kicked, shamed the world of football, and has left a black cloud hanging over the tournament just days before it starts. Keane has already pre-empted any disciplinary action by saying he will never play for Ireland again. But that is the easy way out, giving him the option to 'apologise' in a couple of year's time when he is renegotiating his mammoth contract and would like to be an international player again. Ireland should ban him for life, and FIFA should consider taking some action to censure him as well. How about if they give him a worldwide playing ban for bringing the game into disrepute? I cannot think of anyone who has done anything quite so disreputable as this for a very long time.

    But deep down you know that will never happen. It won't take much time, but eventually someone will come out and say Keane has done the right thing. He will be called a 'brave' man for taking such 'action'. He will again be fêted as 'Europe's best midfielder' - something he never was and never will be. He might even be rewarded by his club, Manchester United, because after all he will now be fit and fresh when they start the qualification process for next year's Champions League in early August.

    You just know that Keane is going to get away with this, that his treachery is going to be dismissed, then condoned. He has too much weight, too much influence. He is too important to his club. But then again he used to be that important to his country as well, and all respect to Mick McCarthy, he decided he could do without Keane's peculiar brand of loyalty and commitment. Maybe that is a lead Alex Ferguson could follow?

    Let Keane 'retire', let him sulk off to his mansion and count his money. Once in a while he will take out his medals and polish them. One thing is for sure. He is never going to have a World Cup winners' medal in that collection. Even though he had little chance of winning one this summer, he will never have had a better chance of success at the highest level.

    But you get the idea Keane could not care less. He is successful, and must be happy enough in his decision. He can also rest assured that he is going to go down in World Cup history, but not quite in the way he had in mind.

    Keane has joined a pretty exclusive club - the club of the greatest villains in World Cup history. Where once stood the names of Harald Schumacher, and the Peruvian players who took a bribe to lose to Argentina, now stands Roy Keane. In 1998 David Beckham came back from France a villain, in disgrace after his sending off. He had let down his team and his country. What Keane has done is a hundred or a thousand times worse. If he has any sense left, may I suggest he does not go back to Dublin anytime soon? I don't think he is going to be too popular.



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