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World Cup A-Z: Quitting

2 June 2014

By Rhys Griffiths

Stick a load of footballers on a plane, fly them halfway around the world, and confine them to a hotel for weeks on end. It's no wonder World Cups can provide almost perfect conditions for simmering resentment, mounting tensions and the odd spectacular barney. And few come much more spectacular that the bust-up that engulfed the Ireland squad in 2002.

Ahead of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea the boys in green headed to the Pacific island of Saipan for a training camp. Irish captain Roy Keane had long harboured concerns about the professionalism of the preparations made by the FAI for internationals, so when he arrived at Dublin airport, carrying his own gear and checking in for a flight via Amsterdam and Tokyo, there was already a sense the whole venture had got off on the wrong foot.

Arriving in Saipan for what was being billed as a period of relaxation and light training, the team discovered their kit, training balls and medical supplies had not yet arrived on the island. Keane - who later described the atmosphere on Saipan as 'happy-camper mode' - was not impressed with how the authorities were setting up for a competition he said the team should be in to win.

But things were to get even worse. The team soon discovered that the training pitch they were supposed to prepare for the tournament on had not been prepped for their arrival and the lack of watering had, unsurprisingly for summer time in the Pacific, left the surface hard as a rock. This was the final straw for the notoriously combative captain, who simply couldn't hold his emotions in check any longer. It was at this point that Keane first made moves to quit the team and head home.

Now, the story gets a little uncertain here. Witness accounts vary and, given how the brewing storm would end up splitting Irish society and even draw comment from the Taoiseach, it is hardly a shock that many involved have been reluctant to elaborate on what exactly happened on Saipan. But what is clear is that Keane gave an interview to the Irish Times in which he criticised the preparations for the World Cup and this led to the volatile team meeting that would seal his fate.

In front of the assembled squad and management, Irish boss Mick McCarthy questioned the newspaper article that had caused such a sensation back home and then accused his captain of faking injury to avoid an earlier World Cup qualifier. That was the moment that Keane snapped and unleashed what Niall Quinn later described as 'the most surgical slaughtering anyone has ever got'. We won't repeat that earthy tirade in full, but instead simply summarise by saying Keane effectively told McCarthy where he could stick his World Cup. And that was that.

To this day debate rages about whether Keane actually quit the World Cup and walked out of the Ireland squad, as his detractors claim, or whether he was kicked out by McCarthy. But what we do know is that summer Ireland were eventually knocked out of the tournament on penalties by Spain in the last 16 and Keane's Labrador puppy Triggs enjoyed an awful lot of walkies around Cheshire.

And yet despite the huge controversy over the Saipan incident, speaking in an interview with RTE shortly before Ireland's World Cup opener, the exiled captain was typically understated: "People will get on with their lives. It's a football tournament."

Click here to see the other letters in our World Cup A-Z


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