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Euro 2012: Keane welcomes challenge for underdog Irish

Over the next three weeks, LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane will embark on what is perhaps the most important venture in an already illustrious career.

As the man expected to lead his country to glory during Euro 2012, which kicks off Friday, it doesn’t seem to bother Keane that the expectations of his countrymen will be placed squarely on his shoulders.

As captain, the 31-year-old forward and the Republic of Ireland’s all-time leading scorer figures to be the talisman of the squad. How far Ireland advance is likely to depend largely on how many goals Keane puts past opposing goalkeepers.

Of course, that’s nothing new for the Dublin-born goalscorer.

“I’m the same person as I am,” Keane said before departing for Europe. “If we start changing now, that’s when people look at you differently. It’s obviously a completely different role for than 10 years ago. I’m the captain, so there are a lot of responsibilities, but I’ve had that my whole career. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”

Despite producing a slew of top-notch players – all but two of the squad’s players play in the England Premier League – Ireland are not often in this position. The last time the Irish were represented at a major international tournament was at the 2002 World Cup, when a 21-year-old Keane figured that competing at that level was the norm.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though, and Keane was forced to wait a decade for another chance at international acclaim. This is just the second European Championship appearance for Ireland (1988), and they have just three World Cup appearances (1990, 1994, 2002) in their history.

“You take things for granted when you’re younger,” Keane said. “When I was 21, playing in the World Cup, you think every two years the Euros and stuff like that, it’s basically going to happen. Unfortunately, it hasn’t for us. We’ve been so close on numerous occasions, but we just haven’t gotten there.

“I’m really looking forward to it. The whole country I know is really buzzing for it. It’s kind of like when I was a kid growing up. The atmosphere that I’m getting from the feedback from the family back there is the same thing. It’s going to be good.”

Qualifying for the tournament was quite a challenge in itself, but the difficulties will rise tremendously once there. Ireland drew a difficult group – Spain, Croatia and Italy will stand in their way with a quarterfinal berth at stake. Keane compared playing Spain to taking on Barcelona, and added that Croatia and Ireland are quite even.

As far as Italy, Keane said he fancies his side’s chances.

“Italy is Italy, they defend very well as a team, but we’ve got a manager who’s Italian, who knows the Italian players inside out,” he said. “In the last few years, we’ve played against them three or four times, so we’re hoping that’s the case.”

Ireland open against Croatia on Sunday, play Spain on June 14 and close out group play against the Italians on June 18. While getting to the knockout rounds may seem unlikely to pundits and onlookers alike, Keane said he has but one thing on his mind.

“The trophy," he said. "You have to go into these believing. Even though we’re underdogs, we have to believe that you can win every game.”

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