World Cup 2002: Robbie Keane cartwheels into Irish folklore

Keane celebrating
Keane celebrating / Image by Briony Painter - 90min

The 2002 World Cup had many iconic moments. One that is often overlooked is the entire world getting to witness the Robbie Keane celebration. 

I’d mastered it as a 12-year-old. The cartwheel into the forward roll before finishing with the gun fingers. It hadn’t reached the global stage prior to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. By the end of the competition, everyone knew all about it. 

To set the scene a little bit, this Republic of Ireland team were without Roy Keane following the Saipan incident. Mick McCarthy had a squad made up of experienced internationals in Steve Staunton, Jason McAteer, Niall Quinn and Gary Kelly who had all played in the 1994 World Cup. You then youngsters looking to make names for themselves. A 23-year-old Damien Duff had just finished his first season back in the Premier League, for example. Clinton Morrison was called up after his goalscoring exploits in the First Division for Crystal Palace but the pressure was firmly on Keane to deliver. 

Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders & Toby Cudworth to look back on Korea/Japan '02 as part of the 'Our World Cups' series. We take a trip down memory lane - join us!

It is easy to forget this now looking back having seen the career he went on to have, but heading into the World Cup, Keane had scored just three goals for Leeds United after making his loan move from Inter a permanent one.  

He went on to be a goal machine for club and country but at that point, the 21-year-old must’ve been in the squad due to his potential and not his form. 

McCarthy’s men kicked off their campaign with what turned out to be an invaluable 1-1 draw with Cameroon. Matt Holland scored an important equaliser after the break and Keane almost won it when his right-footed effort from distance cannoned back off the post. 

The same thing happened in the following match. This time it was a late kick-off so it felt right. 

Miroslav Klose had scored in the first half but Germany weren’t able to kick on as they had in their first match - an 8-0 win. 

"Cue bedlam in the stands, in Ireland and in my house, and cartwheels on the pitch. "

In the second minute of stoppage time against Germany, Steve Finnan’s long punt was flicked on by Niall Quinn. Keane latched onto it and though a challenge forced him to delay the shoot, he somehow wrapped his foot around the ball and fired goalwards. Oliver Khan got something on the ball, his head, but it wasn’t enough to divert it wide. Instead, it clipped the post on the way to hitting the back of the net. 

Cue bedlam in the stands, in Ireland and in my house, and cartwheels on the pitch. 

It was the only goal that Germany conceded all the way up until the final. And it was beautiful in its simplicity. 

Keane then opened the scoring in the final group-stage match against Saudi Arabia. Gary Breen added a second before Damien Duff opened his World Cup account. His well-struck effort was palmed into his own goal by the goalkeeper. 

Their first victory of the competition ensured they claimed second spot, finishing one point ahead of Cameroon. Their reward was a round-of-16 clash against Spain. 

Robbie Keane of the Republic of Ireland scores a dramatic penalty kick
Robbie Keane scoring a penalty vs Spain / Ben Radford/GettyImages

Fernando Morientes headed past Shay Given after eight minutes but that seemed to just spur McCarthy and his players on. Just after the hour mark, Duff was brought down in the area and Ireland had the chance to equalise. Ian Harte, normally so reliable from the spot for Leeds, saw his effort saved by Iker Casillas and it appeared as though their World Cup adventure was over. 

That was until the great Fernando Hierro manhandled Quinn in the area and the referee had no choice other than to point to the spot. With Harte off the pitch, Keane was tasked with the responsibility of prolonging his nation's World Cup.  

Casillas didn’t even react as the Irish No10 rolled it into the same corner Harte had earlier aimed for. 

Again, cue the bedlam in the stands and cartwheels on the pitch and in my back garden. This time Peter Drury added something to the moment with his commentary: “Irish men just don’t go home early. If there’s a party, they want to be there.” 

Extra-time was played out and the game went to penalties. Keane, again, converted from the spot but the next three were missed. Finnan scored but Gaizka Mendieta was able to win the game for Spain. 

Only five players scored more goals than Keane at the 2002 World Cup. Ronaldo netted eight times, Rivaldo and Miroslav Klose both scored five while Jon-Dahl Tomasson and Christian Vieri scored four goals each.