This article was first featured in Issue 5 of the Box To Box magazine on the 2002 World Cup with words by Enda Kenneally and accompanying illustration from Henry Cooke (Telstar Designs).
Damien Duff has been a lot of things: Irish flair player and captain, a title winner with Chelsea, a losing Europa League finalist with Fulham, local hero with Shamrock Rovers, underage starlet, and all-round giant of Irish football. He was part of the last great Republic team, successors to the world-class unit of Jackie’s Army, and the forebears to the teams of the wilderness years; it’s only under the nascent tenure of Martin O’Neill has a corner been turned. The current Republic side are a well-drilled team with a little more skill than their critics would have you believe, yet they still pale in comparison to the 2002 Green Army that was packed to a man with captains and real leaders.
With class all over the pitch, from Shay Given to the little and large pairing of Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn up top, this team was given the most sparkle by the man on the wing – Damien Duff. The number nine would end his career as a centurion, but it was in the playoff game against Spain, after growing in confidence and influence during the qualifiers, that saw Duff’s Irish career reach its zenith.
The 2002 showpiece tournament left a legacy of beginnings, endings – such as Steve Staunton’s and Niall Quinn’s international careers – and things in between, narrative arcs that moved from the cliché to the truism through their sheer constancy. Effective Germany reaching the final, England crashing out against a major footballing power, and FIFA’s shadowy hand keeping regional federations and hosts happy. Surprises too, in the shape of the referee of that ill-fated Italy-South Korea game, Byron Moreno, being convicted of heroin smuggling in 2011, and in a strictly footballing sense, in the way players like Ronaldinho, Gaizka Mendieta and Duff saw their careers tail off to varying degrees after the tournament.
Hibernia, the old name for Ireland, was allegedly drawn from word Iberia. In this mythological foreshadowing, the fact that both teams had blonde flair players – Duff and Mendieta – betrayed in its own way the fact that Ireland and Spain have a deep and shared history, both in the real world and in the imagined. Their fates intertwined once more in the last sixteen; the Irish booked their passage to this point after battling draws against Cameroon and Germany, before making short work of group whipping boys Saudi Arabia. Spain, for their part, topped Group B after seeing off Paraguay, South Africa, and Slovenia with three wins from three.
The group results demonstrated Ireland’s reliance on defensive solidity, while the more cavalier attacking instincts of the La Furia Roja produced goals at both ends of the pitch. The presence of talisman Raúl, Fernando Morientes and even Fernando Hierro amongst the Group B goals marked out the danger men for Mick McCarthy’s charges, and made them favourites in the tussle for the quarter-final berth.
This feeling bore out in the first half and the Boys in Green, in truth, were lucky to reach the break trailing by a solitary goal – a close-range header from Morientes into the back of the Irish net. Kevin Kilbane, Gary Breen and Ian Harte were negligent in the build-up to the strike, and in general, the Republic failed to press with any intensity in the opening forty-five minutes, affording the technicians in red shirts to pull the strings all over the pitch.
To compound the issue, Ireland were employing a high-risk offside strategy that kept the team on the edge of disaster and on friendly terms with the assistant referees. Robbie Keane battled manfully but to no avail, while Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella were weak in midfield. Duff, Ireland’s other creative outlet, was anonymous and kept on the periphery of the match, like a Leopold Bloom with studs and shin pads, gazing over Sandymount Strand.
Fortunately for the Irish team in this tournament, they specialised in redemptive second acts: with first-half deficits against Cameroon and Germany giving way to second-half fightbacks, typified by swift movement and clever passing. Duff’s intelligent positioning made him the star man in these recoveries, and his running created a swathe of chances for his teammates in all three group games. He got his just reward when his only goal of the World Cup put the gloss on a 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, and the ITV commentary team called him the ‘most outstanding player on the pitch’.
Duff repeated the trick against the Spanish, after being moved to the wing by a re-jig of personnel. Now unleashed, the winger skinned Juanfran on the right-wing and won a penalty after being brought down in the area. Harte, normally a dead ball specialist, shot weakly to Iker Casillas’ right and Kilbane butchered the rebound. Undeterred by the intact deficit, Duff cut in from the wing again, rounded three Spaniards and shot marginally wide of the Spanish goal.
He continued to run and create, and the Spanish defence were run ragged. So devastating were the attacks from the wing, The Guardian awarded the Dubliner man of the match and declared that he was ‘Ireland’s finest performer of the finals… [he] is one of the few authentic dribblers at the World Cup’. Nevertheless, it was Hierro’s shirt-pulling of Niall Quinn in the dying stages of the match that led to another penalty. Keane, stepping up after Harte’s substitution, found the back of the net and forced extra-time. Cue the obligatory cartwheel and tumble from the boy from Tallaght, and talk of the Irish never leaving the party early from commentators everywhere.
In extra-time, it was Duff’s electric pace that made Ireland dangerous on the break, and better finishing from David Connolly in the Spanish box would have earned the Dubliner an assist. Keane also failed to get onto the end of a wonderful ball from Duff, after the winger had cut in and charged across the box. The Spanish defense, by this stage practically beaten into submission by Duff and Keane, had to rely on last minute interceptions and the reactions of Casillas to keep them in the game, while Raúl’s face from the subs bench suggested a man contemplating the journey home. A fate not previously considered by the Spanish before the match, with the feeling that turning up would be enough to win it.
Unlike against the Romanians in Genoa at Italia ‘90, this World Cup penalty shootout ended in failure. Duff opted against taking one, and Quinn explained afterwards – in an engaging analysis feature on how to prepare for penalties – that the team missed the cultured boots of Staunton and Harte, who had both been subbed off. Quinn simply didn’t fancy one either, and this lack of confidence was replicated in the Spanish camp if their similarly poor penalties were anything to go by. Mendieta settled the issue by scoring the decisive spot kick. It looked scuffed, but Spanish journalists later explained to their Irish counterparts that Mendieta always took his penalties in a languid style, which forced the keeper to commit first.
Spain would experience penalty heartbreak in the next round against the South Koreans, while Irish viewers of RTÉ’s coverage were left with tears of what might have been, with players slumped on the grass and a defeated Shay Given stood shaking his head, hands on hip, staring into the great green void.
Irish football has often sat uncomfortably at the juncture of history and perception. Jack Charlton‘s great Irish team made us accustomed to success, and the preconceived notions of what the limitations of Irish football have often been perpetuated by visiting coaches, most recently through the withering comments of Joachim Löw in the Euro 2016 qualification process. Because of this, the team of the 2002 World Cup occupy a peculiar position. The road to Asia was populated with famous results and superb performances, while young players came of age at the tournament, yet this elegant team are undervalued and under-appreciated today.
A similar fate has befallen the unassuming, incredibly talented Duff. A man who makes friends as easily as any Irish fan abroad. His bow against Saudi Arabia drew Asian fans to a variety of his Premier League clubs, while his name-checking of his sister sitting exams during the World Cup led The Irish Independent to declare that he ‘was at risk of cuddles every time he left the house’. A man so likeable and unassuming, even Claudio Ranieri’s mother loved him.
He never quite fulfilled his potential, but he fought back against a series of injuries and a nightmare spell at Newcastle to achieve some last acclaim in football. He cried when he left London, but his loyalty and talent ensured he avoided the life of a footballing Rambo, living club by club. He carved out a decent existence post-Chelsea and has now returned to his homeland, where he maintains an interest in coaching and punditry.
Duff, somnolent and laidback, could presumably write an autobiography and neglect to put himself in it, given how he often left a dizzying trail in games like a tormented poltergeist – evidence of otherworldly movement but few sightings. There but not there. In Suwon, Puyol and company were left grasping at fresh air as he terrorised them, and journalists wrote little more than throwaway lines about how Duff was unplayable in the group stages and the play-off, and so he hangs on like a footnote to a page, having never really occupied column inches in match reports. In the company of greatness, the legend was left under-written. Destined to be half-remembered, he is, after all, the man who helped Ireland dominate Spain in terms of possession and shots on target.
The word ‘duff’ has its origins in old English, and its meaning of ‘dough’ is ideal for those that watch football as a fanatic, with an appetite for the daily bread the sport gives its truest believers. It can also mean your posterior, and Duff in his pomp put bums on seats from Lansdowne Road to Stamford Bridge, and raised them off those same seats with goals, invention and sublime tricks that demanded their own Horslips score. In Australian slang, it means to steal something. And steal he did when his off-the-cuff celebration after scoring against Saudi Arabia in the final Group E game of the 2002 World of Japan and South Korea captured the hearts of the locals. Damo’s sweeping bow revealed a man prone to creativity and affection for those around him, even if the goal itself was a scuffed hit-and-hope helped on its way by the hapless Saudi keeper.
Patrick Kavanagh declared that ‘gods make their own importance’. And players forge their own legacy when they grab hold of a match and attack it, with the bit between their teeth, a thirst for responsibility and a drive toward the opposition’s goal. On June 16th, 2002, Duff did just that, with ball glued to foot and intent drawn from the ancient battles to stake one more claim for the Túatha Dé Danann. And while the reports had adjectives such as ‘brave’ etched into the hard-luck stories of penalty woe, others were more appropriate: delightful, magnificent, awe-inspiring, breathless. Duff embodied all those qualities in the Suwon World Cup Stadium, with his artistry filling in the gaps of the functionally named arena. Regardless of what came before or has come since for the Dubliner, his was one of the greatest Irish performances at a World Cup, and we must take more heed of this fact.
The collective canon of the shared Irish and Iberian experience fired one more shot, wove more fabric into the thread connecting two nations separated by little more than the Atlantic. Irish football created abiding memories of young Robbie Keane’s cartwheels, his namesake’s controversial exit from Saipan, Gary Breen’s disbelief that he scored against the Saudi’s, and Duff reminding us that McCarthy’s Green Army were capable of joyous, expansive football, and that he was an absolute, undiluted, mouth-opening pleasure to watch.