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Spain v Ireland: 'This is the biggest game Ireland have ever played'

Playing world and European champions in a major tournament and needed at least a point? We’ve never been involved in a bigger occasion, writes Miguel Delaney.

Ireland train ahead of their game tonight.
Ireland train ahead of their game tonight.
Image: INPHO/Donall Farmer

WE ARE WELL aware, of course, of the full dimensions of this Spanish team: defending European champions, reigning world champions, potentially the best team of all time.

But are we fully aware of the dimensions of this game? Might this just be the biggest game Ireland have ever played?

Let’s go through the details.

For one, Ireland have played the reigning world champions nine times but only two of those games were competitive: the 2010 World Cup qualifiers against Italy, both of which ended in draws.

Other than that, Ireland have only played the World Cup winners in friendlies and warm-ups, losing four of them (to West Germany 1955, Brazil 1974, Argentina 1980 and Italy 1985), drawing one (to Brazil 2004) and winning two (over West Germany in 1956 and, again, the unified Germany in the build-up to USA 94).

While Giovanni Trapattoni’s team drew both games against Italy in the 2010 quarter-finals, they weren’t exactly do or die. Indeed, for the last game at Croke Park, the play-off place had already been decided.

Matches against the reigning European champions, however, have tended to have much more importance — other than the single friendly defeat to Czechoslovakia in 1976.

In the Euro ’72 qualifiers, Italy beat Ireland twice. In the USA ’94 qualifiers, more famously, Ireland suddenly found the dynamics of the group changed after Denmark were dropped into Euro ’92 and won it (Ireland had actually played their first World Cup qualifier before that summer’s tournament in Sweden even started), with the two sides then drawing twice.

Coincidentally, though, the biggest game against the biggest name for so long in Irish football was actually against defending European champions, Spain. In 1965, the two teams played twice to qualify for the 1966 World Cup before the infamous play-off in Paris.

That was eventually trumped by the effective eliminator in Italia ’90 against the reigning European champions, the Netherlands, even if the circumstances eventually ensured the game quietly fizzled out.

That, however, brings us to the second dimension: the exact urgency of the match.

Ireland have been in this situation — actually needing ‘a result’ to stay in a tournament — on eight other occasions: once in Euro ’88, another two times in Italia ’90, twice in USA ’94, three times in the 2002 World Cup.

And, while the matches against the hosts in Italy and the eventual runners-up in 1988 (USSR) and 2002 (Germany) may have been undeniably illustrious, the status of the teams at the time didn’t quite match that of either the Dutch in 1988 or Spain today.

So, although, the quarter-final in 1990 might well have been the highest stage Ireland have ever played on, there is an argument that all of the dimensions around this match add up make it the biggest and most exacting the country has ever played: they must get a result, they must play double champions.

As such, it’s not just a massive task. It’s a truly massive occasion.

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