Belfast Telegraph

Indispensable Robbie Keane remains an enigma

By David Kelly

Two men alone with their thoughts, thousands and thousands of feet above the world.

Earlier this week, both of Ireland's most recognisable captains were suspended somewhere in the air en route to the latest staging post of their consistently remarkable sporting journeys.

One man leaving home; the other, returning.

In Brian O'Driscoll's case, a fourth and final World Cup beckons, a last chance to fulfil the only remaining blemish upon an otherwise stainless reputation; for Robbie Keane, his latest — potentially last — opportunity to pitch up at a major international football tournament.

One man beloved by so many of his countrymen; the other, adored and abused by the public in equal measure.

It remains an enduring source of regret that this is so.

Before he led his Ireland squad on their arduous 48-hour trip to New Zealand for this month's World Cup, O'Driscoll reflected with regret his experience on the global stage.

“I don't want to finish my own career not having achieved on the biggest stage,” said O'Driscoll (pictured).

As one, a nation prayed his wish would be granted.

This week we will once again ask Keane of his desire to replicate his one appearance at a major championship and he will once again reiterate that natural longing to relive the heights of 2002.

But why will his reply fail to resonate with the public like that of O’Driscoll’s.

Perhaps the answer can be found within the personalities of both men. O'Driscoll's is popularly available, easily discernible; Keane's is invisible, publicly distant.

The chasm between their share of the public's acclaim is yawning. True, there is a class issue at work but this can hardly be the crux of the matter.

Paradoxically, the riches available to both players differ wildly — Keane's massive salary dwarfs that of his fellow Dubliner by a multiple of at least 10.

The sporting culture in which he has thrived, the English Premiership, is a garish entity far removed from the grounded normality of the Leinster or Ireland rugby scene.

And therein lies the rub.

While O'Driscoll can be spotted in Dundrum queuing in line for popcorn; Keane has seemingly abandoned his Glenshane roots to imprison himself behind electric gates.

O'Driscoll has remained of us, it appears to all; Keane, it is routinely charged, has not.

Keane's persona is inextricably linked with all that is distasteful about English soccer.

Unlike O'Driscoll, we have never got to know the personality behind the lavish football boot endorsements.

Sport reveals character, it is said. Sadly, Keane has chosen to reveal precious little of his.

Returning to Moscow, as the Republic will next week, recalls an informal meeting with Keane on their last visit there nine years ago in which he revealed much of the character related so often by many of his team-mates.

Yet Keane has chosen to keep that side of himself hidden to the extent that the public treat him with suspicion.

While Keane the footballer's loyalty and ability remains unquestioned, Keane the person remains as misconstrued as ever.

Now he is being pilloried for supplanting one hotbed of vulgar excess for another.

He hasn't cared before and he doesn't care now.

Today, he will be as charming and witty as he has been whenever being presented to the public as Irish captain.

And, over the next five days, he will be an indispensable factor in propelling the Republic’s attempts to qualify for another major tournament. And with it the chance for the country to again fall in love with its national football team.

Whether they will all fall in love with Robbie Keane is another story. Sadly, it is much too late for that to happen now.

To know him is to love him, says the old song. Such a pity so many never got the chance.

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