By Paul Gardner
Can’t say I’m a great devotee of Northern Irish soccer. But they came up against Portugal in a weekend World Cup qualifier, so I watched -- because of Cristiano Ronaldo.
I was rewarded, of course -- by seeing Ronaldo do, splendidly, what he has so often been accused of notdoing: putting his heart and all of his tremendous talent into a game for his national team. His remarkable hat trick should have silenced that slur, but it probably won’t. You will have noticed that soccer fans like to stick with their grievances, whatever the facts may say.
But two emphatic headers and a rasping free kick -- all within the space of 15 minutes -- turned the scoreline from a 1-2 loss to a 4-2 victory, and were more than enough to remind me just what an exceptional player Ronaldo is. And how unlucky he is to be around at the same moment as Lionel Messi. Now he will have to cope with the arrival of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid. Maybe we were watching Ronaldo’s first reaction to that challenge.
As for Northern Ireland (or Northern Ireland Nil, as someone once admitted he thought was the full name of the country, because that’s all he ever heard from the media), they weren’t horrible, just so ordinaryin that unimaginative way that characterizes Brit soccer.
But a word of the highest praise for their coach Michael O’Neill who managed the almost unthinkable (these days) feat of publicly criticizing one of his own players. No, I’m not suggesting that coaches should make a habit of trashing their own players to the media. But every so often there are incidents of violent play that no coach should defend. Most do. Or they duck the issue -- Arsene Wenger has a formidable history of simply “not seeing” what happened when his players get red-carded.
Not O’Neill. In the 80th minute Kyle Lafferty launched himself recklessly at Joao Pereira and was promptly ejected. An absurd foul -- committed against a player deep in his own half, presenting no threat whatever. Postgame, O’Neill expressed his anger: “Kyle’s tackle was a very reckless challenge, ridiculous … I feel he let the players down.”
Lafferty, need I say, protested the red card. At the other end of the field, the Northern Irish goalkeeper Roy Carroll got away with one of those irritating stunts that goalkeepers know how to pull.
At the 66th minute, with Portugal piling on the pressure. Carroll made an exceptional save, and managed to delay the taking of Portugal’s corner kick by getting a short massage, and then apparently changing his gloves.
Carroll knows, as do all goalkeepers, that when they need treatment, the game hasto stop. A goalkeeper cannot be ordered off the field for treatment. With Portugal threatening, and waiting to take a corner kick, this was a good moment to engineer a halt in the action. Carroll was already on a yellow card, so a second yellow for time-wasting was unlikely. Whatever ailed Carroll was not too apparent. As it panned out, Ronaldo took over, scoring the first of his three-goal onslaught just a minute later.
From the glory that is Ronaldo to the grandeur that is Brazil. So I watched the Brazil-Australia friendly, looking for that grandeur, but not finding too much. The game was played in a half-empty Maracana, a telling comment. The Brazilian fans were not paying money to watch Australia. One wonders why anyone, including Australians, would pay to watch Australia. On this performance they are quite simply hopeless.
Athletes, yes -- well, we certainly expect that from Australians. But soccer players? Where were they? After all, this was not a B team for the Aussies -- it included eight players who had started in Australia’s key World Cup qualifier against Japan in June. And it is a team that is likely to be again inflicted on the Brazilian and world fans when the real World Cup action begins next year.
Brazil got six goals, Australia got none, and was lucky to get that. Yes, Brazil did some nice stuff, but this is not the majestic Brazil of old. Maybe more of the old style would have been visible had Oscar been on the field. Maybe -- but it was all too easy anyway. Neymar had his moments, and got knocked down quite a lot -- nothing violent, but it left one wondering what the Australian approach will be should they get to play Brazil for real next year. Not a pretty thought.
Nor is it easy to ponder the sad fate of Scotland, once the shining star of the Brit countries, the one that produced the most skillful players. Now reduced to second-rate status, it was beaten 2-0 by Belgium in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden Park, the venerable stadium where once upon a time opponents feared to tread.
This was deja vu, Northern Ireland moved up a notch or two -- but still the ponderous straightforwardness of the Brit game, the almost infuriating lack of anything suggesting inventiveness, originality, creativeness or artistry. Sad indeed, but even sadder was to hear Scottish coach Gordon Strachan trying to make a case for his players by downgrading the Belgians -- “Their hearts are not as big as ours. Their work rate is not as big as ours.” As though that’s all that matters. So this goes down as what The Scotsman newspaper called an honorable defeat.
Can it be viewed that way? Is it good enough for a team simply to be stubborn and well-organized and difficult to beat? But it’s worse than that. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland look like soldiers condemned to fight a battle with out-of-date weapons. Brave they are, but lose they will.