Los Angeles Galaxy forward Robbie Keane, Ireland’s all-time leading scorer, will captain the team Sunday when it opens the European Championship against Croatia.
An estimated 20,000 fans are in Poznan for the game, and Keane credits Ireland's 73-year-old Italian coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, with building support behind the team.
“The job the manager has done has been great,” says Keane. “We’re a small country [population 4.5 million] and we came really close the past few years, like in France where we did well to win the game. We don’t need to talk about what happened after that, but we’ve been close.”
France eliminated Ireland in the 2010 World Cup playoffs with the help of a goal created when Thierry Henry handled the ball, but Trapattoni stayed with the team despite his age.
Trapattoni has coached AC Milan, Fiorentina, Juventus and Cagliari in his native country as well as in Portugal, Germany and Austria. He was Italy’s coach from 2000 to 2004 and though his appointment by the Irish soccer federation was regarded by some as a strange one, he was born on St. Patrick’s Day.
"Every goal I face is a challenge. I still have the same determination, the same concentration and the same attention to detail," Trapattoni said. “I'm really grateful to the Irish people because they believe in us -- they believe in what we've done."
Trapattoni says it's important his players appreciate the support they have.
"I repeat always," he said, "you must be proud about our country, our people, because they make a very big sacrifice -- the money, the travel, the trip. The players know this. All players before the training, I repeated this to them. Our country expects, our supporters expect. Football is about the 90 minutes, but it’s important that we guarantee our people total and complete commitment.”
Keane is eager to see how the presence of Irish brightens the tournament and if they can add a bit of push to Ireland’s longshot ambitions to advance.
“To have a manager like we have, with the places he’s been and the experience he has, he’s completely changed the atmosphere of the whole country with the way he [carries] himself,” says Keane. “It’s great for the team that we’re back in a major tournament because everybody loves to see the Irish fans covering the town.”