Trap's date with destiny
When Giovanni Trapattoni took the surprising decision to extend his remarkable managerial career and become Republic of Ireland boss last year, the date of October 10, 2009 would have been instantly circled in his diary.
Okay, Ireland's hopes of winning Group Eight and qualifying directly for South Africa is dependant on a host of unlikely results, but the reality that a solitary point against the world champions at Croke Park on Saturday will seal Ireland's place in the World Cup play-offs next month can only be hailed as a major triumph for Trapattoni.
This veteran has transformed an Ireland team that had become something of a joke under Steve Staunton's pitiful guidance into a side boasting an unbeaten record from their eight games, including a highly creditable 1-1 draw against Marcello Lippi's Italy in Bari back in April.
His results have banished the notion that Trapattoni is an ineffective international coach after his troubled reign as Azzurri boss between 2000 and 2004 ended in misery and now he is targeting a famous victory over his motherland on Saturday night.
"We can beat Italy if we believe it is possible," begins Trapattoni, who tends to be a cross between an enthusiast and a nutty professor in his press briefings. "I'd like to think I know what the Italians will have in store us and can brief my boys on the best way to approach the game.
"I'm no stranger to Lippi and he knows my history, how I operate. I believe he could see this Ireland team was a threat when we played Italy the first time as we could have won that night. Now is the moment for us to go one step further and not be satisfied with just a draw or second place in the group."
A little like compatriot Fabio Capello with England, Trapattoni has changed the mindset of an Ireland team that has long settled for second best with a little too much relish.
Last month's battling 2-1 victory in Cyprus confirmed that Trap's Boys in Green have a very different mentality to the Ireland sides that went before them and for that reason, they will be a team to avoid if the play-offs beckon next month.
However, FIFA's decision to seed the teams that qualify for the play-offs has not helped the Ireland cause as they now look certain to face a mammoth task to reach South Africa 2010. This granddaddy of all managers is clearly unhappy with the decision to keep the likes of Spain, Russia and Croatia apart and he offers these strong words to make his case.
"They don't want big teams draw together, but it should be open for everyone and these kind of decisions ruin football," he continues. "Still, I will not allow this to upset my team and we will take on the play-off games with real belief.
"When we go into the play-offs against Russia, Germany, Portugal, France or Greece, I will say to my boys, why would you not believe in yourself? We have come through a tough group and done well, so let's believe the next step is possible."
With Irish qualification for a major tournament within touching distance for the first time in eight years, you could reasonably expect the local media to be overflowing with tributes for Trapattoni and yet, bizarrely, the opposite has been in evidence.
His ploy of playing two unfashionable holding midfielders in Stoke's Glenn Whelan and Blackburn's Keith Andrews has long been lambasted by a host of ex-Ireland stars and media pundits, while some curiously blame Trapattoni for Stephen Ireland's continued absence from the team.
The fact that the maverick Manchester City midfielder flatly refuses to play for his country should, in fact, ensure that he is cast as the villain of this sorry saga, but the 'foreigner' seems to accept more criticism even though he is the one putting his heart and soul into the Irish cause.
While Trapattoni cannot be blamed for the non-appearance of a player who prefers to spend his spare time in tattoo parlours rather representing his country, the Ireland boss is culpable when it comes to the thorny issue of Andy Reid's international exile.
For those of you not up to speed with this story, Reid was initially overlooked by Trapattoni after he was involved in a late night sing-song/drinking session after the Georgia qualifier last year, but his punishment for that indiscretion has hardly fitted his crime.
The farce reached new levels of insanity this week as Trapattoni called-up unheralded QPR midfielder Martin Rowlands, just a few days after Reid's brilliant display in the Premier League against champions Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was a decision that does not reflect well on this belligerent old coach whose determination to ignore the media clamour for the return of a popular player may end up hurting his team.
"So many questions about the same player," is Trapattoni's response for reporters who revel in quizzing him on this issue. "I have nothing against Reid, but he just doesn't fit into the system my Ireland team are playing. If that changes, I will bring him back. I know all about the players like Reid and Lee Carsley. They can still be important for us, but not at this moment. I like the players in the squad, so why make changes when things have been going well?"
Trapattoni's paymasters at the FAI seem content with the job their "celebrity" boss is doing as they rewarded him with two-year contract extension last month. A PR victory was claimed by all when it was revealed the Italian had taken a pay cut to stay on as Ireland boss and had also dared to cross his beloved wife Paola, who is eager for him to hang up his well worn tracksuit.
"I said to the FAI that we would accept less money than we are on now," adds Trapattoni. "We agreed financial terms and I have taken a cut because I recognise the current economic climate and the problems that exist in the world. It was important that the FAI believes in the job we are doing. We could have said, 'thank you' and gone home, but we want to continue the work we have started.
"We have achieved so much already and I want this to continue. We played incredibly well away in Italy and I have seen a sparkle in this team in some games. Now these players have to believe in themselves a little more. They can be great, but they have to believe it.
"My wife accepts this decision. She tells me to take a rest and I respond by saying I will in the future. Right now, this is my life and I don't want to be without football. The game has been with me since I was 11 years old and even though I'm also interested in my family, in politics and the opera, football gives me so much. I would miss it if I walked away now."
Aside from the Andy Reid issue, Trapattoni has barely put a foot wrong in his time as Ireland manager and if he could lead his adopted nation to victory against his beloved Italy this weekend, even his fiercest critic would be forced to offer him some belated praise.