Illustration by Federico Manasse
When Robbie Keane first began turning heads with the Republic of Ireland, scoring two goals against Malta in a 5-0 European Championship qualifying match, he also spun the wheels in motion for an unstoppable journey towards becoming the greatest goalscorer his country has ever produced.
Scoring 68 goals throughout his international career, Keane is far and away the nation’s most clinical striker, but he is also their record cap holder with 146 appearances, placing him ahead of other long-serving stalwarts like Shay Given, John O’Shea and Kevin Kilbane.
His unprecedented contribution of goals, combined with his haul of appearances, are what separates him from so many other illustrious names like Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Roy Keane. All equally talented and driven performers, with more successful club careers than Keane for the most part, none match the sheer longevity of his international career which attests, above all else, to his admirable dedication. For most Irish football fans, the legacy of Keane embodies so many different strands; he represents loyalty, consistency, skill, pride and passion, among so many qualities.
To follow Irish football can be a cruel journey to embark on, make no mistake. The path is beset on all sides with an array of emotional obstacles which mean that enlisting as a member of the Green Army can temper the rhythm of even the coolest fans’ heartbeats. However, with ‘Keano’ leading the line, there was always an ease of pressure. Seeing him up top, wrapped in the famous green of his homeland, lent a certain level of assurance that the Boys in Green could achieve victory; even when the odds were stacked against them, which they often have been.
Original Series | The 50
For the Republic of Ireland, silverware has always been difficult to come by but Keane rarely allowed such realities to cloud his judgement or his endeavour. He was selected to score goals and produce stellar displays for the team and seemed completely uninterested in their unshakable tag as minnows. It was often a case of simply getting on with the task at hand, an action he relished as captain, leader and veritable instigator of brilliant moments.
Helping his team qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as the 2012 and 2016 UEFA European Championships, the phenomenal goalscorer was essentially an ever-present throughout his time as an active player. The image of his cartwheel celebration is lovingly retained in the minds of all Irish fans, even now with his retirement set in stone, but the snapshots of his wide range of finishes are what truly capture the essence of Keane the net-rattler. He scored so many great goals in so many ways – tap-ins, curled finishes and delightful dinks – and it is surely his ecstasy-inducing strike past Oliver Kahn, at the 2002 World Cup, that stands out as his finest.
Steve Finnan’s hopeful, thwacked long ball from deep, nodded into the path of Keane by the towering Niall Quinn in the closing stages, saw the energetic striker produce a finish to bamboozle Kahn between the posts and raise the decibel levels. The goal sealed their passage to the last 16 but, more than that, it immortalised Keane as a true Irish football folk hero, capable of producing era-defining moments equal to Ray Houghton’s headed goal against England in 1988 or Jason McAteer’s volley against the Netherlands all those years ago.
Keane had never needed to prove himself since his first goal for his country, but that was part of what made him special. His club career was punctuated by nomadic impulses but, in an age where national icons are needed more than ever for Ireland, he was never working to win anyone over; he had always been a fan-favourite. Instead, Keane was playing to keep them happy because he knew he had it in himself to keep producing moments of mastery – and boy did he do that