Saturday, May 9, 2009

The War of Saipan

by Bob Coldeen

Five years ago this week Ireland's national soccer team came to Saipan in preparation for the World Cup in Japan. No one predicted that their short time here would be referred to as the “War of Saipan” by a whole country.

When one hears about “the War” here in these islands, the natural assumption is World War II. But to people in Ireland, it means the battle between two men: coach Mick McCarthy and star player Roy Keane, a feud that went so deep into their collective psychology that it polarized a nation and remains such a significant event that a movie of it is being made and last month's “Mad About Sports” magazine from Europe had it on their front page as the feature article.

Keane was not only Ireland's top player, he was captain of Manchester United, the most famous soccer team in the world. McCarthy was an Englishman with Irish ties hired to coach the team.

Ex-pat John White invited the team to Saipan and they accepted.

I went to their first workout at Oleai Field and chatted with one of the press from Britain. Prior to their arrival, I had scanned the internet to learn something about the team. Trying to impress one of the British press with at least some knowledge of their national sport while also looking for a story angle, I asked, “Are Robbie Keane and Roy Keane brothers?”

He shook his head and laughed at my ignorance. He asked me if the team's arrival would be my top story that night. Itold him I wasn't sure because I also had an exciting women's softball game and a good Little League game planned for my show that evening.

The next day on the Internet I read a British newspaper story about how ignorant I was about soccer and considered women's softball and children's baseball to be more important than the World Cup. Well, I do think Roy Keane could walk down Beach Road in a jockstrap and people here could not care less. And more people go to a Little League game on Saipan than there were at the Ireland's practices.

Later I asked McCarthy why they had chosen Saipan and he said they came to get acclimated to the heat and the time change and also for the team to bond together in a relaxed setting. He must have not told Roy.

The CNMI spent $20,000 to improve Oleai field but that wasn't enough to make it the quality pitch Keane was used to playing on and he complained to one of the reporters for the Irish Times about that and a slew of other things about McCarthy's preparation for the Cup.

The next day Keane's diatribe showed up in the Irish Times newspaper and in McCarthy's hands. He held a team meeting and that's when the whole thing exploded with McCarthy kicking Roy off the team. Saipan's soccer field suddenly became an issue of world concern, but the fact is the two had bad feelings brewing between them for 10 years, fundamental differences between two incompatible professionals, talented men with personal flaws that they could not overcome, even for the sake of a country in the World Cup. That is what caused the “War of Saipan,” not some field of grass.

(Saipan Tribune 05/20/2007)

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