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Of Keane and kangaroos

Roy Keane is out at Manchester United, and Australia is going to the World Cup. What the heck is going on?

I do not like Roy Keane.

No, I don't deny that Manchester United's fiery ex-captain and midfield general - who sensationally parted ways with the club this past week - made a hugely positive contribution to the dominant Old Trafford sides that have pretty much owned the English Premier League since its formation. Obviously, the explosive Irishman is one of the most accomplished, and celebrated, soccer talents of the past twenty years.

If only he weren't such a malignant jerk.

In many ways, I feel about Keane exactly as I do about Philadelphia Flyers' legend and general manager Bobby Clarke. The talent and success are unarguable - but would you please just give me a freaking break?

There's Clarkie, the gap-toothed pride of Flin Flon, busting up Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in the 1972 Summit Series. Now here's Keane, screaming mocking insults at Alf-Inge Haaland, after ending the Manchester City player's career with one of the most vicious soccer tackles of the new century.

Now here's Clarke the GM, effectively running Eric Lindros out of town for suffering multiple concussions in the line of duty. Cut ahead to Keane, verbally ripping apart several teammates in the wake of a dreadful 4-1 loss at Middlesbrough.

For all that, Bobby Clarke has vast legions of loyal adoring fans. And so, of course, does Roy Keane, and I'm not going to change anybody's mind about either of them.

Please don't think, by the way, that I'm trying to hit Manchester United while they are down. (They're not that down, actually, following back-to-back wins over Chelsea and Charlton.) Quite the opposite. I think Keane's departure is perfectly timed, and that United will be significantly better off without him.

Keane had been paving the way for his exit since shortly after the new soccer season began. Out of absolutely nowhere, he told some open microphones that this would be his final season in Red Devil red. That certainly came as a major surprise to his boss. Sir Alex Ferguson had reportedly been crunching the numbers for a fat contract extension for his captain, main man, and all-around favourite player.

Then came Middlesbrough, and a Keane tirade so pointed and poisonous it was actually yanked off the air by United's in-house TV network. And all this is happening at a time when Keane is too injured to do anything about United's wobbly start to the season.

I'm guessing that right about the time United ended Chelsea's undefeated run, it became clear to all concerned that the plug linking Roy Keane to Manchester United needed to be pulled.

Think about it. If Keane is not the man who is going to lead United past Chelsea in the standings, why put up with all the rancorous off-field distraction? If Chelsea's going to run away with the EPL, why not give young Alan Smith six months to prove that he can - or cannot - be the kind of flowing, attacking midfield force Keane provided for so many glorious seasons? If Smith's the man, great! If not, there are numerous potential replacements out there - and not even Chelsea could buy them all up out of sheer spite just to keep United from getting the man they want.

Roy Keane's early exit from Old Trafford was the right move at the right time - a great opportunity for team team, and richly deserved by the player. In the early going of the aftermath, both Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion are apparently red hot for Keane's signature on a contract.

Good luck to them. At least they know exactly what they're getting, even if it's clear that Keane's vicious, self-indulgent temper is not declining at the same rate as his body and his skills.

Hard done by Down Under

The most delicious detail of a frantic final day of World Cup qualifying was that Australia squeaked past Uruguay, and is going to The Show for the first time since 1974. As a huge fan of all things Australian, I sincerely wish them well.

But here's a few choice paragraphs for the people who run Australian soccer, because this qualification neatly underscores what utter oafs they have been for the past five years.

Australia, you'll recall, lobbied hard to get an automatic World Cup berth for their region of the world, Oceania. At first glance, this seems only fair, until you weigh the proposal against every other qualifying route everywhere else on the planet.

Oceania, it turns out, already has the easiest, shortest route to the dance. All the Aussies have to do is beat up American Samoa and the Solomon Islands, and hope someone throws a block on New Zealand. Then, they get a two-game home-and-home with the fifth-best team in either Asia or South America (Iran, Uruguay and Uruguay the past three runs), and that's all they have to do to qualify.

The Aussie braintrust actually had the nerve to complain that being forced to actually defeat one single, solitary mid-level opponent was unfair. And FIFA even bought it for a while. Oceania was, in fact, awarded an automatic seat at the World Cup table. Both the Asians and South Americans screamed foul, and FIFA was shamed into a very public - and extremely embarrassing - reversal.

The Aussies, totally fed up, announced that this will be their final appearance in the Oceania group. They have applied to join Asia's footballing federation, and have been accepted.

And then they went out and beat Uruguay, and took the easiet, shortest ride of any of the 32 qualifying teams except for Germany, who automatically got in as hosts. Even the defending champs had to earn their ride this time, and Brazil didn't get any soft games against Vanuatu to compensate them for their inconvenience.

So to the Aussie players, congratulations! Good on yer, mates! Fly off to Germany, and have a great time. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see you make it to the final sixteen, and I'll be rooting for you if you do.

But make sure you enjoy this World Cup, lads.

Because you're going to have to earn your next one


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