For more than a decade, Robbie Keane has been Ireland's leader, as well as their most recognizable superstar. Even though he's now 35 years old and playing in MLS, little has changed.
This feature package has a few stories about superstars who stand out above their peers as once-in-a-generation talents for their countries. Guys like Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski and David Alaba. But those are some of the best players in the world — real, genuine superstars. Keane is, if we're being completely honest, not quite that.
From 2002 until 2012 — the prime years of Keane's career — the Republic of Ireland did not qualify for a major tournament. They might have qualified for the 2010 World Cup if it wasn't for Thierry Henry's infamous intentional handball, but he did that, so they didn't. It wasn't until Keane left Europe to join the LA Galaxy that Ireland finally managed to win qualification to the Euros. Keane's European career featured a long, successful stint at Tottenham Hotspur, but also failed moves to Inter Milan and Liverpool, and it ended with loans to Celtic, West Ham and Aston Villa. It's hardly Zlatan Ibrahimovic's career.
But none of that could ever be held against Keane, who has consistently delivered in an Ireland shirt. Whether he had a decent strike partner, a bad one or was asked to play up top alone in an offensively negative 4-5-1 formation, he's been his team's top player. A quick glance at the Ireland squad suggests that this is probably going to be the case again at Euro 2016.
If teams like Turkey and Sweden present the positive case for this tournament expanding from 16 to 24 teams, Ireland are the other side. Setting aside their 11 goals against Gibraltar, by far the worst team in Europe, Ireland scored eight times in eight other qualifying matches. They scored two goals once, away to Georgia, and were shut out once, away to Scotland. In their other six games, they scored exactly one goal. If you hated Martin O'Neill's Sunderland and late-era Aston Villa teams, his Ireland side is the same thing with slightly less talent.
They're the thoroughly uninspiring assortment of Premier League backups and Championship starters that you'd expect from Ireland, occasionally saved by Séamus Coleman or Robbie Brady doing something mildly entertaining. For the uninitiated, that's the right and left back. The two most entertaining non-Keane players in this team are fullbacks.
The Ireland squad looked the same before O'Neill, and they basically played the same kind of soccer too. Italian veteran Giovanni Trapattoni made Ireland competitive against more talented sides by refusing to trust youngsters and setting up his team in a rigid, defensive, highly organized scheme. And as boring as he was, Trappattoni was a huge improvement over the two largely incompetent managers that preceded him.
And through all this — through dull and incompetent managers, as well as dull and incompetent teammates — Robbie Keane has been trying his damnedest to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. His 67 goals are more than triple the second-best tally set by Niall Quinn, his partner up top at the 2002 World Cup. His scoring rate is double that of his most common partner, Kevin Doyle, who is not in this squad. It's just barely less than double the scoring rate of Shane Long, whom he's likely to partner up top with in this tournament. His 143 caps are 32 more than any other Irish outfield player.
He's done this with an outrageous travel schedule. Keane has made the difficult trans-continental, then trans-Atlantic flights between Los Angeles and Europe for five years now, and it hasn't slowed him down. He occasionally takes a game off on either side of them, but it's rare. He hasn't prioritized his country over his club like other MLS stars who realized too late that they started a retirement tour a few years too early, playing at an MVP level for the Galaxy for four consecutive seasons while continuing to give his all for Ireland.
But all careers must end, and Keane's appears to be winding down. He just barely proved his fitness ahead of this tournament and hasn't been an every-game starter for the Galaxy this season. He spent the MLS offseason working on his coaching badges. He's played over 800 competitive senior matches in his career. He'll start the tournament as a bench player. This is probably the last we'll see of Keane at this level.
Ireland won't send him off with a deep run in this tournament. They're simply not good enough. But it would be a shame if they couldn't send him off with some kind of memorable moment — a goal, a great assist, an upset win. If anyone deserves it, Robbie Keane does.