The World Cup in Brazil may be still twenty months away, the qualifying campaign in Europe may still be in its early throes; but for one man, it’s already crunch time.
Last Monday, the British bookmakers released odds as short as ½ for Giovanni Trapattoni to get the sack before the conclusion of Republic of Ireland’s qualification campaign. While financial considerations may prevent an immediate culling of a manager sitting on a newly signed lucrative contract till 2014, an unfavourable set of results against Germany at home on Friday and Faroe Islands away on Tuesday will see the odds shortening further. The clock is well and truly ticking for Trapattoni.
The man himself might be forgiven for wondering how times have changed since his appointment back in February 2008 amidst great fanfare. Indeed after the unmitigated disaster that was the managerial reign of Steve Staunton, which included possibly the lowest ebb for Ireland in international football – a humiliating 5-2 defeat to Cyprus during Euro 2008 qualifications, appointment of Trapattoni appeared to be a major coup on part of Football Association of Ireland (FAI). This after all was the most decorated manager in history of Serie A; the man who was supposed to be the second coming of Jack Charlton. In retrospection though, it is worth assessing whether all that hype was justified.
To be fair, by the time Trapattoni was employed by FAI, his star was long on the wane. His previous job was in Austrian League with Red Bull Salzburg – an assignment hardly befitting a man whose managerial CV boasted of clubs such as Juventus, Internazionale and Bayern Munich. It was during his spell in charge of the Italian national team, that his reputation first took a battering. Under him, Italy prematurely crashed out of both the major tournaments it participated (2nd round in World Cup 2002 and group stage in Euro 2004). In his defense, both exits were laced with fair dose of controversy. The refereeing in the knockout game against co-hosts South Korea in 2002 at times bordered on farcical in terms of home team bias, while the Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Sweden played out a 2-2 draw in the final group game in 2004 to send Italy packing.
But make no mistake; such controversial circumstances do not exonerate Trapattoni from his own failings that contributed to those ignominious exit. With the wide pool of glittering talent at his disposal, it can be reasonably debated that Italy should not have had to depend on vagaries of external parties to seal progression on either occasion. The fact that his immediate successor Marcello Lippi led Italy to World Cup crown in 2006 with arguably a lesser talented squad under more trying circumstances, does not place his managerial skills in good light. Post his unsuccessful sojourn with Italy, more humiliation was in store for him at VfB Stuttgart, where he was dismissed after a horrendous eight month spell. All these incidents seemed to lead to quite a definite conclusion: Trapattoni, whose greatest successes were achieved back in the 70s and 80s, had failed to keep pace with the rate at which the game has evolved since then.
But such considerations were soon brushed under the carpet by Irish football fans, as Trapattoni took charge of Ireland in 2008 hoping to usher in a new era of success on the international front. The results improved discernibly during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign in which Ireland remained unbeaten in the group fixtures which included home and away ties against the then reigning champions Italy. While in the away leg at Bari, a late Robbie Keane strike helped Ireland earn a crucial point, the return leg in Dublin saw the Irish come agonizingly close to a famous victory only to be denied by an injury time goal by Alberto Gilardino.
Ireland finished second in the group and were drawn against France in a play-off tie, which would ultimately be remembered for all the wrong reasons. After slumping to a disappointing 1-0 loss at home, Trapattoni’s men put up an inspired display at Stade de France where a solitary Robbie Keane strike took the game to extra-time. But standing on the brink of a surprise qualification, the Irish were about to receive a rude shock as their famous luck deserted them. During the first period of extra time, Thierry Henry deliberately handled the ball while setting up the eventual winner for William Gallas. In spite of the vehement protestations by the players, the referee allowed the goal to stand. In terms of controversy, this was right up there with previous disappointments suffered by Trapattoni in 2002 and 2004. A request from FAI to replay the game was expectedly turned down by FIFA as the nation was left incensed at the sheer injustice of it all.
Up next were the Euro 2012 qualifiers. To his credit, Trapattoni rallied his troops well after such a bitter experience and Ireland qualified for a major tournament for the first time since 2002. In the buildup to the tournament, murmurs of discontentment aimed at Trapattoni were drowned out by his vociferous backers. Unfortunately though, Ireland’s performance in the tournament was a real letdown for the veteran manager and his supporters. After being soundly beaten by each of the other three teams in an admittedly strong group – consisting of Spain, Italy and Croatia – the Irish suffered their worst ever return in the finals of any major tournament.
As expected, as an upshot of such a disastrous campaign, all the skeletons that have been carefully stowed away during Trapattoni’s reign were brought out of the closet. Question marks were raised about the style of play adopted by Ireland under Trapattoni – a dour and pragmatic approach which is only acceptable if accompanied by positive results. But with Ireland being at the receiving end of repeated thrashings in Euro 2012, the fans were understandably left frustrated by the unpalatable nature of the fare served up by their team.
The other stinging criticism aimed at Trapattoni is his refusal to blood young talents into the squad. In the midfield, the likes of Darron Gibson, Wes Hoolahan and James McCarthy have been continuously overlooked in the favour of Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews despite the pair’s obvious limitations. Shane Long, in spite of his goal-scoring exploits with West Bromwich Albion, can’t seem to nudge ahead of the veteran Keane in the pecking order. The sight of forward Simon Cox manning the flanks is truly bewildering when one considers the form and talent of Anthony Pilkington & James McClean. Stephen Ward is still the first choice.
Quite clearly such inexplicable team selections by Trapattoni have not only antagonized the fans and people in media, it has had detrimental effects in his relationship with the players he has chosen to overlook. Gibson, frustrated at his reduced role during the Euros, has withdrawn his services from international duty. Long has been labeled an ‘idiot’ by Trapattoni after the striker claimed to be fit for the friendly against Serbia in August. McCarthy is another one in the list of disenchanted young Irish players who had fallen out with the management.
Amidst all the growing disillusionment regarding Trapattoni’s reign came the dismal performance in the first game of the World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan last month. Ireland trailed the minnows going into the last couple of minutes of the match at Astana before two late goals secured an ill-deserved victory. The fresh start that Trapattoni must have been craving after the Euros has already been tarnished.
The games against Germany and Faroe Islands may prove to be last hurrah of Trapattoni’s legendary career. Getting something against the Germans might be too daunting an ask even at the best of times, but the meek surrender seen in the Euros must not be repeated. The game that may ultimately decide Trapattoni’s fate is the one away to Faroe Islands. In a group containing Sweden and a rapidly improving Austria, the likes of Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands needs to be dispatched ruthlessly. A performance mirroring that in Astana on Tuesday, and Trapattoni may well be packing his bags, his new contract notwithstanding.
Ahead of such a crucial double header, Trapattoni certainly has not been helped with the injury crisis currently plaguing his squad. The man himself though has put on a brave face in the buildup to the fixture against Germany and is making the right kind of noises.
“We don’t need to look for excuses. I wish to remember the final of the Champions League last season when the favourites, 100 per cent, were Bayern Munich. Bayern had 17 corners Bayern, Chelsea had three and Chelsea won the game and the Champions League. That is football. We need 11 players to give 100 per cent. Every one of us must give 100 per cent or I will need to change the team. I have spoken to them about their enthusiasm and giving 100 per cent commitment when we call them.“
A manager with a career as stellar as Trapattoni’s, deserves a much grander stage than a match against Faroe Islands (no disrespect meant) for a swan song. But as Trapattoni is surely aware by now, all those trophies he had won in the distant past will count for very little with the Irish supporter’s and indeed FAI, going forward. He must deliver the results on the pitch or else the man nicknamed Il Trap will soon find the trap door opening under his feet.