During his time as a player, Mick McCarthy made 57 appearances for Republic of Ireland, five of which came at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™. When Jack Charlton resigned in 1996, McCarthy was his successor, remaining in the role for eight-and-a-half years.
Arguably the pinnacle of his 68-game tenure was qualification for Korea/Japan 2002, in which he led the Republic to the Round of 16, eventually losing to Spain in a penalty shoot-out.
In an in-depth interview with FIFA.com, the current Ipswich Town boss reflects on both tournaments and looks ahead to Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: You’ve said that your first World Cup memory was watching England win the World Cup in 1966 as a seven-year-old, but your first brush with the World Cup as a player came in a Mexico 1986 qualifier against Denmark.
Mick McCarthy: We got beaten 3-0 and we were lucky to get nil! You could tell then that they were going to go on and have a decent World Cup. They had Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer and Morten Olsen playing for them. They were fantastic, but it was a great experience. Playing the qualifiers was a right eye-opener for a lad from Barnsley. We went to Russia to play in Moscow and the stadium was full, but it was full of soldiers. We played in silence until Russia scored, which was really odd, but then they scored and the noise was unbelievable.
Four years later you qualified and were drawn in a group with England, Egypt and Netherlands. What stands out for you?
The sight of Irish fans – they were everywhere we went. But as a group, we always embraced that: we’d never seen the likes before. It was new, fresh and brilliant – Jack Charlton even allowed them to watch us train. The atmosphere surrounding us was wonderful. We mixed together. in fact, there was a saying around the fans at time: ‘We beat the English 1-1, we lost to Egypt 0-0 and we drew with the Dutch 1-1.’ I think that was fairly accurate. However, those results got us through to the knockout phase and that made the feel-good factor increase further.
You played Romania in the Round of 16 and needed a penalty shoot-out to go through. The Republic scored all five of their penalties, but had it gone to sudden death, when would we have seen Mick McCarthy?
You’d have had some wait, I was right down the pecking order! When I was a kid, I took penalties for fun but I soon realised when I was a professional that there were a lot better takers than me. It wasn’t a question of bottle, that wasn’t a problem, but there were better strikers of the ball in the squad. But watching them was nerve-wracking; you just hope that you’ll end up on the winning side. It was a huge occasion to take penalties and I think both teams did remarkably well to score nine out of the ten. Fortunately for us, we got one more than they did.
Next up was a quarter-final clash with Italy and a trip to Rome, but you also went to the Vatican…
Yes, and I met the Pope. As the captain of the team I presented him with a shirt and shook his hand. It was fabulous and then we had another great occasion by playing Italy. My memories of that game are incredibly vivid: there was the long walk down the tunnel at the Olympic Stadium onto the pitch and we played well. It was a fabulous game to play in as it was a really tough, hard-fought scrap but unfortunately 'Toto' Schillaci was on fire and he was the difference. But we left with our heads held high, we gave a great account of ourselves.
When our fans turned up at Italia 90 dressed in the green, white and gold with caps and shamrocks aplenty, it made for a carnival atmosphere. They play their part. Football without fans is nothing.
As manager of Ireland, you qualified for a play-off for the 2002 World Cup despite having Portugal and Netherlands in the group to set up a meeting with Iran. What are your memories of that?
Well, we were beaten in the 93rd minute but what stands out is the atmosphere in the Azadi Stadium. It’s one of the most difficult places to play football in. They let the fans in hours before and the atmosphere was amazing. Had we conceded in the third minute, it may well have been more. Fortunately we were able to overturn the deficit in Dublin and qualify.
The stand-out image of the group stage is your open mouth when Robbie Keane scored his late equaliser against Germany.
I thought he’d hit the post at first, so I didn’t realise until I saw the celebrations. What happened next was euphoria. But I think we deserved it. We had a really nervous opening 15 minutes in which they scored and then we took the game to them. We improvised a little bit in the second half as we went 3-4-3 but we put in a wonderful performance. After my spat with Roy Keane, we were really in the spotlight and there was an awful amount of pressure on us as a team. Robbie’s goal was a tremendous release for everyone. It showed tremendous character and team-spirit.
A win over Saudi Arabia gave you a meeting in the Round of 16 tie against Spain where you eventually lost on penalties. Do you still think, ‘What if?’
If you do that, you end up looking back with bitterness, so I don’t do that. I just think what a fabulous World Cup it was and I enjoyed it. My glass is half full: what if we hadn’t equalised against Germany and Cameroon? However, I do think we deserved to beat them, but it just wasn’t our day. We’d practised penalties every day at the tournament, even in the same goal on the day before the game. It was a fantastic tournament and it was great to experience a World Cup in a different culture. Japan were great hosts.
What makes the World Cup such a great competition?
The fans who travel from all four corners of the world. If they didn’t do that, it would be awful. When our fans turned up at Italia 90 dressed in the green, white and gold with caps and shamrocks aplenty, it made for a carnival atmosphere. They play their part. Football without fans is nothing. And then again, it’s the best of the best: the best players on the best pitches in the best stadiums fighting against each us. This time around, I can’t see past Brazil. A European team hasn’t won it on South American soil, so I believe the best South American team will win it – and that’s Brazil. Germany and Spain will be there or thereabouts, and I think that Belgium will do quite well this year.