Keane revels in Ireland’s return
Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane is determined to make up for lost time at Euro 2012 after spending the last 10 years watching major international tournaments on television.
Keane was still a fresh faced 21-year-old when Ireland had their last taste of the big-time at the 2002 World Cup and the innocence of youth led the striker to believe he would be a regular at the big international events for many years to come.
But since then Keane and his Irish teammates have endured a series of near-misses in qualification, including agonising play-off defeats to France, Belgium and Iran, which left them frustrated on-lookers while World Cups and European Championships went on without them.
The long wait is finally over after Giovanni Trapattoni's team defeated Estonia in the Euro 2012 play-offs and Keane – now in the twilight of his career with LA Galaxy – is desperate to shine in Poland and the Ukraine after such a long wait to return to the spotlight.
"It's been a pain, to be honest with you. It's even been hard to watch. When you are 21 years of age, you think you have got 20 years left in you," Keane said.
"But now you are coming towards the end and you are not too sure how many tournaments you have left in you.
"This is what you play football for, to play in these big competitions.
"I have been fortunate to play in a World Cup, which was one of the best experiences of my life, but I haven't played in a European Championship yet.
"Every time you watch one on the TV, you are just desperate to be there."
Keane is well aware that Ireland's status as one of international football's middle-ranking nations makes it far from certain he will ever get another chance to star on such a big stage.
Dublin-born Keane was only a teenager when he won his first senior cap, but like Ireland teammates Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff, he is now a grizzled veteran with only a few years left before he has to call it quits.
"We have been playing since we were 17, 18 years of age. Ten years ago, we were the young lads coming through and Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton were sitting down at the back of the bus," he said.
"Now it's me, Shay, Richie and Duffer sitting at the back of the bus, so I am sure all the young lads are saying, 'Look at all those old fellas back there'."
Despite spending his entire club career at the highest level with the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Inter Milan and Leeds, the 31-year-old has never been part of a really successful team.
His only winners' medals came in the League Cup with Tottenham in 2008 and the MLS Cup with the Galaxy last year.
That lack of club glory makes Ireland's return to the spotlight such a significant event for an man who takes great pride in being his country's all-time record scorer with 53 goals, including three at the 2002 World Cup.
"When I first came into the Ireland squad, Niall Quinn said to me I would get 50 goals so it's probably down to him!" Keane said of his former Ireland strike partner.
Keane is relishing the chance to take on Spain, Italy and Croatia in the Euro 2012 group stages because he believes Trapattoni's side are good enough to defy their status as one of the tournament's outsiders.
"If you look at the history of Irish teams in tournaments, they have always been a hard team to beat," he said.
"They always upset a few people, and I am sure we can go over there and certainly make an impact."