The Republic of Ireland failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and it was quite a heartbreak as the verdict came after a crushing defeat at the hands of Denmark at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The first leg of the play-off gave the Irish hope of qualification after a goalless draw in Copenhagen, but the second leg ended with a 5-1 defeat at the end of a match in which the Danish side was vastly superior with bookmakers like BetSafe offering 12/5 odds for a repeat draw and 46/10 for the boys in green to come away victorious. The year 2017 ended in sadness for the Irish football fans, but maybe this is the moment to look at the past as a source of pride and perhaps as inspiration for the future.
In fact, the Republic of Ireland still holds a World Cup record as the only team to progress from the group stage at every final tournament. It is true that the Irish only managed to get to three World Cup final tournaments, but getting through the group stage every time is still quite an achievement.
The Republic of Ireland’s first presence at the FIFA World Cup final tournament was in 1990 in Italy and most people believed that qualifying for the first knockout round would be impossible. The Republic of Ireland were drawn in Group F alongside England, the Netherlands and Egypt, and it seemed that finishing third would be the best they could hope for. The campaign started with a surprising 1-1 draw against England, Kevin Sheedy scored to make it all square after Gary Lineker had opened the scoring for England. A disappointing goalless draw against Egypt followed, but the Irish surprised everyone again in the final group match as they drew 1-1 against the Netherlands. Qualifying from the group stage did involve quite a bit of luck because the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland were perfectly equal at the end of the group matches: the same number of points, number of goals scored and number of goals conceded. The rules state that in such cases qualification is decided by drawing of lots, and the Irish were luckier than the Dutch back in 1990.
But the team proved more than worthy of their luck as they knocked out Romania in the first knockout round at the end of an exciting match. The Romanian had several chances to score but veteran goalkeeper Pat Bonner was in extraordinary shape. The match ended goalless after 120 minutes and its fate was decided in the penalty shoot-out. The Irish prevailed after converting all five penalty kicks while Romania missed the last one.
Then the Republic of Ireland had another impossible task ahead of them as they had to face host nation Italy in the next round. Striker Salvatore Schillaci scored the only goal of the match at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, ending the World Cup dream for the Republic of Ireland. But the team had all the reasons in the world to be proud of their achievements at their first ever World Cup.
United States of America 1994
The Republic of Ireland were drawn into another tough group at the 1994 World Cup in the United States of America; they had to compete for a top two spot in Group E with Italy, Mexico and Norway. It all started with a sweet taste of revenge over Italy; Ray Houghton scored the only goal of the match to give the Irish a proud 1-0 victory over the Italians. Then the Irish suffered their first World Cup group stage defeat, 2-1 at the hands of Mexico, but held firm for a goalless draw against Norway in the final group match. The results earned the Republic of Ireland second place in the group table behind Mexico, the Irish finished tied on four points with Italy, but the victory in the direct clash earned them qualification for the first knockout round.
The first match of the knockout phase allowed the Netherlands to get their revenge for the bad luck they had in 1990; they defeated the Irish 2-0 thanks to goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Korea and Japan 2002
The Republic of Ireland made their return at the World Cup in 2002 after having missed out on qualification for the 1998 tournament in France. They were drawn in Group E alongside Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia and were expected to challenge the African side for second place.
The Irish started with a 1-1 draw against Cameroon; Matt Holland earned them a share of the spoils as he scored to make it all square in the second half. In the following match, the Republic of Ireland produced a resolute performance to deny powerful Germany, it all seemed to end in defeat after Miroslav Klose had opened the scoring for the Germans early on but Robbie Keane stabbed home the equalizer in stoppage time. The group stage ended with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Ireland finished second behind Germany to qualify for the knockout phase once again.
The first knockout round put the Republic of Ireland against mighty Spain, but the Irish did give them more than a run for their money. Spain opened the scoring after just eight minutes through Fernando Morientes, but Robbie Keane struck again as time ran out and sent the game into extra time and then to the penalty shoot-out. Spain only managed to convert three of their penalty kicks, but the Irish only scored twice out of five and the World Cup run came to an end.
The next chance to take part in the World Cup final tournament is in Qatar in 2022. Hopefully, the Republic of Ireland team will be there.