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It has been ten years since the Republic of Ireland's last major tournament and 24 since their only previous appearance at a UEFA European Championship. If there is an obvious sense of excitement in the camp, it is brought into sharper relief by the demeanour of Croatia – their rivals in the teams' opening Group C game – going into tomorrow's encounter.
Croatia have become regulars at such events, and the atmosphere at training and in their pre-match press conference was relaxed and jovial. They have been here before. "We have been ranked in the top ten teams in the world for the last five years," said their coach Slaven Bilić. "We have only missed two tournaments since independence – it is a phenomenal achievement for a country our size."
One of only four Irish players to have tasted the experience of a big tournament, captain Robbie Keane admitted that if he had known the 2002 FIFA World Cup would be his last for ten years, "he wouldn't have taken it for granted". Now the players, and the nation, cannot wait to join the big stage again. Their coach, speaking alongside Keane at the Municipal Stadium Poznan, has seen it all before, though.
Giovanni Trapattoni said he would approach the tournament with the same mindset that has served him so well over the years. "Every goal I face is a challenge. I still have the same determination, the same concentration and the same attention to detail," said Trapattoni, who led Ireland through a play-off with Estonia to be in Poland and Ukraine. "I'm really grateful to the Irish people because they believe in us – they believe in what we've done."
The 73-year-old Italian becomes the oldest coach at a European Championship when his side take on Croatia in Poznan. In Bilić, he comes up against a man 30 years his junior, but he refutes that either his experience, or the Croatian's exuberance, will be decisive. "No matter what your age is, it is important to learn and reach new goals. Bilić has just as hard a task as me."
Bilić is no greenhorn anymore, either, having started his coaching career over ten years ago. Nevertheless, he is fully aware what Trapattoni brings to the table. "He is Mr Calcio, Juventus, Inter. He is still the man and is doing very well with the Irish team – I am fascinated and respect these coaches that have huge experience. Their training sessions are perfect. He's a huge figure."
The Croatia coach is in his last tournament leading the national team, and is looking forward to each game at UEFA EURO 2012. "Ireland did a great job in their group. They play very well, but their football is straightforward so we can't over-analyse them," he added, before letting his mind look forward at the future challenges. "We still have to play against Italy and Spain, so we are not just focused on Ireland."
With such giants of the international game looming large, some observers have suggested this is the most important match for both teams. But for a man who has been there before, it is not so much the teams to come as what the first result can give a side going into those tests. "If you win the first match you get enthusiasm and motivation," Trapattoni said. "That is why the first match is so important to get through the qualifying rounds."
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