Captain Robbie Keane has vowed to put a smile on Irish faces with victory over Croatia in the European Championship opener on Sunday night.
The LA Galaxy striker will lead Ireland out for the country’s first tournament appearance in 10 years.
Ireland was enjoying the start of the Celtic Tiger boom when Keane played at the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Now the country is going through an economic recession and Keane knows the need for a decent performance in the Euros when his team meet Croatia, champions Spain and Italy.
“It’s been ten difficult years for the country,” admitted Keane ahead of the opening fixture in Poznan.
“In 2002, we had great experience with people like Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton.
“I keep saying it but we took it for granted. When you are a young lad you think you are going to be in every tournament and obviously we haven’t.
“I think it has been a long time coming for the country. We can now see the atmosphere in the whole nation back home.
“It has completely changed the whole atmosphere of the whole country. The country has been on its knees for a few years. It has certainly given the whole country a lift.
“Certainly, as a group it is great for us to see. It is up to us as a team now to hopefully give them as much joy as possible over the next month or so.”
Keane also told reporters in Poznan that he is ‘honored’ to be only the second Irish captain at a European Championship finals.
The 31-year-old added: “I’m very fortunate as I have said before to have played in a World Cup. The European Championship is different.
“Everybody has great memories over the years of previous Irish teams.
“It is certainly going to be a special occasion to play for your country, but to lead your country in a major championship is something that I don’t think any player will ever forget.
“It is certainly something that I am looking forward to.”
Keane is also optimistic about Ireland’s chances and added: “If you look at our record over the last couple of years it’s been very, very good.
“We’re coming into this competition with a lot of confidence and belief that we can certainly get out of this group.
“By no means is it going to be easy, we know that. It is one of the toughest groups.
“I’ve been with the lads now for the three weeks. With the belief that we have in the squad for the last three years, there is no doubt in my mind that these players are going into this competition believing that they can get out of this group.”
Croatia will be difficult opponents according to Keane. He said: “I think the start of any competition is important and certainly the first game. We are playing a team that people see as a little bit similar.
“People fancy Spain and Italy because they are two massive nations to get out of the group.
“It is certainly important to get points as soon as possible. That’s something we’ll be looking to do.
“Croatia are a strong team with good individual players. They have someone like Luka Modric, who I know very, very well. I’ve been speaking to him over the last couple of days, having a bit of banter with him.
“I look forward to playing against him and hopefully after the game shaking his hand with three points in the bag.
“We know they have grown as individual players and collectively as a team since Slaven Bilic took over as manager. They have become a stronger and even better team.
“We know their weaknesses and their strengths. The manager looks at videos everyday of certain individual players and how they play as a team. That will be drilled into us.”
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