Football: Oliveira's fairy-tale upstages Irish sob story

World Cup
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Andrew Longmore

reports from King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels

Belgium 2 Rep of Ireland 1 Belgium win 3-2 on aggregate

To lose in the finals of the World Cup, Tony Cascarino said, well, that was expected. To lose before getting there? He could not quite find the right words to describe that feeling. After two successive qualification campaigns, the Irish have been regular guests at the high table and for players like Cascarino, Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend, the last survivors from the feasts of Italy and the United States, defeat by Belgium was hard to swallow. For Cascarino most of all perhaps.

Playing for Nancy in the French league, Cascarino will be at the centre of the preparations for next summer, but the anticipation will only heighten his own sense of exile. Nor, at the age of 35, can he hope for another chance to end his international career as the leading goalscorer in Irish history. His one moment came and went in the first half, a cross from Jeff Kenna falling to his right foot not his head. "I had more time than I thought," he said. "I just tried to sidefoot it home." Instead, he miscued and the ball bounced gently into the arms of the Belgian goalkeeper.

But every sob story - and there were barfuls in Brussels on Saturday night - has a matching fairytale, none more deserved than that of Luis Oliveira or, to give him his full name, Luis Ayrton Oliveira Barroso. "Loulou" for short. If the Irish have been typecast as the rags to riches stars of recent World Cups, Oliveira's journey from the back streets of Sao Luis in Brazil to the finals by way of Belgium and Italy bears all the hallmarks of the silver screen.

So poor that his family had to choose between eating their meal at lunch or in the evening, Oliveira followed a classic escape route, arriving at Anderlecht from Sociedade Esportiva Tupan, his boyhood club, as a lonely 18-year-old with little but his talent and his boots. He made his debut as a substitute, replacing Luc Nilis. Almost 10 years on to the day, the unlikely partnership of local hero and adopted South American has taken the Diables Rouges to their fifth successive World Cup finals, an extraordinary sequence for such an unpretentious footballing nation. "What could be better for me?" Oliveira asked in the wake of Belgium's raucous celebrations. "The chance of playing against Brazil in France."

Though he left Belgium for Sardinia shortly after taking citizenship and missed the 1990 finals, four goals in the qualifying campaign brought renewed popularity. Only Nilis, whose status as the most famous Belgian since Tintin is already secure, received a greater cheer at stadium. No one celebrated victory more fervently.

In the aftermath of defeat, Mick McCarthy, the Ireland manager, talked of a sense of despair, also of pride and hope. With no summer plans to make, no new kit to design and no sponsors to woo, the offices of the Football Association of Ireland will be desolation row this morning as the cost of the controversial throw-in which preceded Nilis's winning goal is counted. About pounds 4m at a conservative estimate.

Extensive replays offered no conclusive proof that the throw, parallel with the Irish penalty area, should have gone to the visitors, but a momentary loss of concentration allowed Nilis to tuck his third goal in 18 days past Shay Given and betrayed the inexperience of the Irish.

More clogdance than Riverdance in Dublin, the Irish had shown a real cohesion and purpose in Brussels. Gary Kelly and Mark Kennedy stretched the ponderous Belgian defence, Lee Carsley played like a veteran anchoring the midfield and once Ray Houghton had cancelled out Oliveira's opening goal, with a clever, looping header, the Irish sensed another famous night. Then came the throw-in, the red mist and the red card for David Connolly, who lashed out with his foot at Gert Verhayen just eight minutes after replacing Kennedy, and the sort of gallant defeat the Irish had begun to forget.

It was hard to know where sympathy should lie; with McCarthy, who will have to wait for another two years to exorcise Charlton's ghost, with players like Cascarino, whose World Cup career ended in the Brussels rain, with the excellent young goalkeeper Given, whose time will come again, or with the 10,000 Irish followers, who in cheering the victors as ecstatically as their own champions showed a precious quality that will be missed in France next summer. Ireland will aim to be back in Belgium for the finals of the European Championship in 2000.

Goals: Oliveira (25) 1-0; Houghton (58) 1-1; Nilis (70) 2-1.

BELGIUM (4-4-2): De Wilde (Sporting Lisbon); DeFlandre (Bruges), Verstraeten (Germinal Ekeren), De Boeck (Anderlecht), Vidovic (Mouscron); Verheyen (Bruges), Van der Elst (Bruges), Claessens (Bruges), Boffin (Metz); Nilis (PSV Enidhoven), Oliveira (Fiorentina). Substitutes: Borkelmans (Bruges) for Vidovic, 65; Goossens (Standard Liege) for Nilis, 89.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-5-1): Given (Newcastle Utd); Kenna (Blackburn Rovers); Harte (Leeds Utd), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Staunton (Aston Villa); G Kelly (Leeds Utd), McLoughlin (Portsmouth), Carsley (Derby County), Townsend (Middlesbrough), Kennedy (Liverpool); Cascarino (Nancy). Substitutes: Houghton (Reading) for McLoughlin, 50; Connolly (Feyenoord) for Kennedy, 74; D Kelly (Tranmere Rovers) for Townsend, 85).

Referee: G Benko (Austria).

Sent off: Rep of Ireland: Connolly. Bookings: Rep of Ireland: Harte, Cunningham.

Man of the match: G Kelly.

Attendance: 35,320.