THIS IS a marvellous World Cup, arguably the best since 1970. The villains who want to kick and the cowards who refuse to play the game the way it should be played are being sorted out as the tournament moves towards an enthralling climax.
Fifa's revised interpretation of the laws of the game is punitive. As a result, the refereeing has been fussy, cards that should never have been produced have punished the innocent as often as the guilty. Yet, on the whole, football's rulers have erred on the right side: better that a few innocent men should suffer than, as previously, the villains should prevail.
Many, most of them with little interest in football, will choose to define Ireland's performance in the United States in parochial terms: small country with no great footballing tradition, splendid supporters, providers of the fairy-tale dimension to the tournament. Take a bow, Big Jack Charlton. See you in 1996. And don't forget to bring those great fans of yours.
A declining but vocal band of Irish supporters adhere to the Charlton myth. The British media still promote the Big Jack miracle, that fiction being, in their terms, a great story. Reflecting on that notion, one is reminded of Sir Lew Grade's response when challenged about the quality of his television programmes: 'All my shows are great', Sir Lew insisted, 'Some of them are lousy . . . but all of them are great'.
From an Irish point of view, the saddest aspect of this World Cup is the fact that the most ardent believer in the Big Jack story is the man himself. Watching from close range, it was clear that he, more than anyone else, was content just to be at the finals.
'We've had fun, the players have done all I asked of them . . . and the fans have been wonderful,' Charlton declared puffing a Lew Grade-size cigar and looking distinctly relieved after Holland had comfortably beaten Ireland in Orlando last Monday. If there was no sign of disappointment, much less angst, in Charlton's cleverly contrived post-game performance, that is because Charlton felt no despair. Listening to this spiel from the avuncular hero, the media were where he likes them: in his back-pocket.
What could he do, Charlton asked in resigned mode, if players made elementary errors? There was a snide reference to Gary Sprake, the accident-prone Leeds goalkeeper, which placed Packie Bonner in the frame and, at the end of that final Orlando press conference, this practised after-dinner speaker was applauded from the stage by a press corps in awe of his legend. Ireland had once more lived down to expectations.
Jack Charlton is reported to be considering his future. I don't believe these stories. The prospect of taking a team to England to compete in the European Championships in 1996, there to settle an old score with the Football Association who failed to reply to his application for the England job in 1974, must tempt him greatly. More burnish for his legend, more products to endorse. Charlton claims that public opinion will influence his decision to go or stay.
Public opinion, in the context of the Charlton myth, is nothing more than the congealed ignorance of a nation dazzled to the point of mass hysteria. The minority who know their football well enough to distinguish between fact and fantasy have long since decided that even though the show is great, the football of the Charlton era has been, too often, lousy.
The essential conflict of interest now is between the event junkies who party every time the Irish team play, and the football community which flinches with embarrassment and despair when, as in Orlando last Monday, an outstanding group of footballers betray themselves as they attempt to do it his way.
And when the dust settles on this sorry end to the World Cup journey, I believe that public opinion will change to prove that you can fool all the people, but only some of the time. It is worth confirming for people wondering about their sanity that the Irish team failed to live up to expectations in the United States. At a tournament notable for its quality, Ireland stood out as beggars at the banquet.
Gifted with one of the most formidable squads in Europe - as the record of the qualifying series and pre-tournament friendlies proves - Charlton squandered it all. Imagine what Ireland might have done if led and inspired by a man of vision and courage. This is not very hard to do: remember Giants Stadium, when, with the spur of an early goal, the players overcame miserable tactics to humble Italy.
The most damning testimony of Jack Charlton's failure to inspire his players is provided by the contribution other nations have made to this World Cup. Possessing not a fraction of the talent Ireland do, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico and, most spectacularly, the United States came to this great football occasion prepared to play football as it should be played. Led by a resourceful coach, the United States, a collection of itinerant journeymen, did themselves and their nation proud. And they scared the hell out of Brazil hours after Ireland surrendered to Holland.
The contrast is stark: a mediocre team rising to the occasion; a team of splendid potential, fleetingly glimpsed, going home. As long as Jack Charlton manages Ireland, that story of unfulfilled potential will be repeated, Germany '88, Italia '90 and now USA '94: great show, lousy football, and loadsamoney for those who would exploit Irish hopes, Irish dreams.
The hope that Ireland would contest the later stages of this World Cup was legitimate. In football terms, Charlton has failed and should resign. If he goes now, he will leave behind him a considerable legacy. He has led Ireland to the point where they can identify their real potential as a footballing nation. But he is not capable of leading them towards some realisation of their dreams. A man of vision is required.
Some time between the match in Orlando and the homecoming, as Jack Charlton agonised about how best to reconcile his contractual obligations to ITV with the equally pressing business of attending to his Irish legend, the people made up their minds and cried 'enough'. That, at least, is this observer's theory. The suggestion is that the game is up. Only time will prove that public opinion post-USA' 94 is not as hospitable to Jack Charlton as he supposes.
What we can say for certain is that the homecoming arranged by his patrons won't have helped his cause. The players looked sheepish. Having spent a month in their company, I can vouch for the remarkable character of an exceptional group of professional athletes, intelligent, resourceful, good-humoured, smarter by far than those who would use them as props for photo opportunities.
And props is exactly what the Irish team that made us cry in Giants Stadium on 18 June became when they visited President Mary Robinson after stepping from the Opel helicopter on Thursday. As a football man, I will remember with pride until my dying day the victory over Italy, in particular the performance of the great Paul McGrath. As an Irishman, I will never forget the shame I felt when Mary Robinson turned her back on Paul and his colleagues to pay tribute into the lens of a television camera.
It was the President's graceless, tasteless, way of saying thank you, this cosy icon of official Ireland turning her back on the heroes, that defined for me the difference between sporting truth and cultural fantasy.
Jack, the party's over, it's time to call it a day. The sporting truth is that, having travelled to three major championships, you have failed to leave an imprint on the international game. You are only a home-town hero.
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