CARSON, Calif. -- Robbie Keane is stumped. He has just been asked to recall the best prank he’s ever pulled on a teammate, and given his reputation as the ultimate jokester, he has plenty of source material to choose from. Keane hesitates, almost as if someone asked, “Will the defendant please rise?” He finally cops to what one suspects is a lesser charge.
“I don’t know if I can say on camera to be honest with you,” he says with a wry grin as an ESPN television crew looks on. “I’ve had a few good ones. Putting some shrimp under [teammate Steven Hunt’s] bed and leaving it there for a couple of days … you can imagine his room didn’t smell too good.”
As Keane prepares to lead Ireland at Euro 2012, he’s hoping that the joke will be on the rest of Group C and a trio of imposing opponents: reigning European and World Cup champion Spain, traditional powerhouse Italy and Euro 2008 quarterfinalist Croatia. Plus there’s near-universal agreement that in a team short on attacking flair, Keane will need to be at his best if Ireland is to overcome the steep odds facing Giovanni Trapattoni’s side.
But based on the first three months of the MLS season, the Ireland captain appears to be operating far below peak form. He has three goals in nine appearances so far with the L.A. Galaxy, but his last league goal came on March 31. So desperate was the Galaxy to get Keane going that when the team was awarded a penalty in an April 28 match against F.C. Dallas, normal penalty taker Landon Donovan deferred to Keane. The Irishman subsequently missed the target entirely.
Keane hasn’t been alone in his struggles at club level, as L.A. has plummeted down the Western Conference table, currently occupying last place. Last season’s airtight defense has been highly suspect without the injured Omar Gonzalez, and for that reason it’s difficult to assess how much of Keane’s form is down to the team’s performance or the Irishman himself.
“I know Keane’s frustrated he hasn’t scored a little bit more,” Donovan says. “He’s had a number of chances where he’s been a little unlucky, could have done better on a few, and some guys have made great plays to keep him off the scoreboard. His passing has been good, his energy has been good, and he’s been really good in the locker room.”
Galaxy manager Bruce Arena is a bit more circumspect, calling his striker’s play “alright.” That’s an assessment that is right in line with that of the player.
“My form has been OK,” Keane says. “I’ve made a few assists and scored a few goals, but when the team is not winning you’re always judging yourself, and looking at yourself and trying to do better than what you have been doing, because everyone can do that little bit better.”
This, of course, has led to speculation that Keane would have been better off not going on loan to English Premier League side Aston Villa in early January and should have waited a few weeks until the Galaxy’s preseason training program started instead. Keane rejects that line of thinking and insists that after 15 years in the professional game, his body was used to just having a month off and then starting up again.
Are we underdogs? [Yes]. Do people think we’re going to win it? Of course not. As players, we have to believe that we can do. Anything can happen in football. Robbie Keane
Of course, it can be argued that Keane’s form at club level will have little bearing on how he performs for Ireland. That is certainly what he is banking on, even as a hamstring strain kept him out of L.A.’s league game against Chivas USA on May 19.
“As long as you’re playing every week and keeping yourself fit, [this] is the most important thing because as we know in football, you could be struggling in club form and then go with your national team and score every week or be the best player,” Keane says.
That is a scenario Ireland would gladly accept, although Keane’s game has evolved from when he first joined English side Wolverhampton Wanderers as a 16-year-old. Back then Keane relied more on his one-on-one ability to beat opponents and score goals. Not so much now.
“I think as Keane got older, he started to bring more players into play,” says former U.S. international Kasey Keller, who was a teammate of Keane’s when the two were at English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. “Maybe it was more one-twos, it was more just kind of linking play as opposed to when Robbie got the ball in the opponent’s half you thought, ‘OK, on his day, he can go beat the side.’ Now he’s more likely to pass the ball and then make it happen in the final third, as opposed to the midfield line onward.”
Adds Keane: “As you get older and more experienced you get wiser and don’t do as much stupid running that you used to do when you were kid. You used to chase things down, an unnecessary kind of running.”
That experience will come in handy when Ireland kicks off against Croatia on June 10 in the Polish city of Poznan. It will mark Ireland’s first appearance at a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup; back then, three goals from Keane helped the side reach the round of 16. Qualification for Euro 2012 also helped erase some of the bitterness from the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, during which Thierry Henry’s infamous handball enabled France to eliminate Ireland 2-1 in a playoff.
“[The handball incident] galvanized us without a doubt because the players were so close to playing in a major tournament,” Keane says. “We were so desperate to qualify. I think it was important that we qualified sooner rather than later because that would have hung over us for probably a long time. It was good that the Euros were coming around so quick and obviously great that we qualified.”
That’s not to say Ireland is just happy to simply take part as there's no lack of motivation for Keane or the team. Ireland was one of the first casualties of the debt crisis that has plagued Europe, and the austere measures it undertook have taken a significant economic toll on the people. Such difficulties have not been lost on Keane, who said a deep tournament run would be “massive” for the country.
“The players certainly do think about it,” Keane says about the economic crisis. “It’s not every day that you have to think about stuff like this, but it certainly does play on the players’ minds. We’re very privileged and in a position where the players earn a decent amount of money and can look after their families. But there are a lot of people in Ireland who can’t do that.”
But the biggest motivation of all for Keane is to defy the odds that have been put in the team’s path, which are considerable. It could be argued that Ireland will be the underdog in every single one of its group stage matches, but there are some compelling reasons to think that Ireland can progress. Historically, Ireland has progressed to the knockout rounds in three of the four major tournaments for which it has qualified, and the Euros have thrown up plenty of shocks in the past, with Greece’s triumph in 2004 the most recent example.
Closer to the present, Ireland has beaten the Italians once and drawn against them twice since 2008, including a 2-0 win last summer that continued the team’s penchant for performing better against heavily favored opponents. The Irish team is defensively strong, and while the team is short on creativity it does have a potential match winner in winger Aiden McGeady. Plus, with Trapattoni, Ireland has a manager who will have the team organized and prepared even if his functional style isn’t always easy on the eyes.
The team’s legendary fighting spirit is another undervalued asset. “I think as a player, and as a nation, listen, we know it’s not going to be easy,” Keane says. “But when you’re a professional athlete, you’ve got a winning mentality, and you have to go into every tournament, every game believing that you’re going to win it. Are we underdogs? [Yes]. Do people think we’re going to win it? Of course not. As players, we have to believe that we can do. Anything can happen in football.”
Especially when Keane is around.