PARIS (AP) Forget revenge, Ireland’s game against France on Sunday is all about a chance to reach the quarterfinals of the European Championship.
That was the message from coach Martin O’Neill on Thursday as he prepared for a match in Lyon that carries more than its fair share of historical baggage.
Back in November, 2009, Ireland lost a World Cup playoff to France following a blatant handball from forward Thierry Henry in the return leg at Stade de France. After handling it, Henry’s cross led to the extra time equalizer from center half William Gallas that sent Les Bleus through to the 2010 World Cup on aggregate.
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“It’s still causing some controversy,” O’Neill said.
“But I think maybe perhaps more in France than it is in Ireland. We have decided to forget about (it) and that’s some doing coming from Ireland. It will be a talking point obviously, but I don’t think it will concern us when we play the game.”
On Thursday, French sports daily L’Equipe showed a photo of Henry handling the ball alongside the caption “Un vieux compte a regler” (An old score to settle).
Today, O’Neill has fresh concerns – notably how much more rest time France has had.
France played its final group game on Sunday, drawing 0-0 with Switzerland, while Ireland beat Italy 1-0 on Wednesday night thanks to a late goal from midfielder Robbie Brady.
“It does seem a disproportionate amount of time that one team has to recover from another and that might become very, very important,” O’Neill said.
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“I do understand as a host nation you should get some particular favors. If the competition was in Ireland I would do exactly the same myself. I would have the teams that play Ireland play every single night and we wouldn’t have to play for a year.”
Ireland’s scenes of jubilation were electric, with the 24-year-old Brady in tears as he celebrated with his family.
“It is nice to see some younger players coming through, feeling as if they belong,” O’Neill said. “For the future it looks good … but while we are here in the present let’s be delighted with how we performed, let’s think about it for a day, and then let’s get ready for France.”
O’Neill – who is from Northern Ireland – was a popular manager during spells with Leicester and Aston Villa in the English Premier League and with Celtic in Scotland.
He is also renowned for his off-the-cuff humor.
Moments after Ireland’s win, he shared a close-quarters hug with assistant coach Roy Keane, a former tough-talking – and even harder tackling – midfielder for Ireland and Manchester United.
“I told him to shave his beard because it was ruffling my chin,” O’Neill joked.
Asked what Keane replied, O’Neill continued the jokey vibe.
“He said `You are an ugly sod’ to which I agreed whole heartedly. And then I said he wasn’t Paul Newman either.”