Andorra: A different ball game
Andorra's high altitude, uneven surface and tiny crowd capacity make for Ireland's most bizarre setting on the road to Euro 2012
IN ANDORRA, the main concern faced by citizens is the risk of avalanches and landslides. Crime is practically non-existent in a country where even the taxman is everybody's friend.
As the Irish team prepare to play a crucially important Euro 2012 qualifier in the landlocked principality this Friday, they will enter a similar thought process. They are visiting a place where, in reality, the main threat is posed by the terrain rather than the people.
The list of the names on the Andorra team-sheet will not strike fear into any Irish hearts. Neither will a list of their employers, with this bunch largely drawn from the part-time local league or the nether regions of the Spanish ladder. A handful of senior figures are unattached. Effectively, they just play for their country.
But the threat for Ireland is the unusual nature of their surroundings. For a variety of reasons, this will be different to anything else they have encountered on the road to here, the business end of the Euro 2012 campaign.
Certainly it would be unwise to expect a rout. Ireland secured a 3-0 win the last time they played an away qualifier against the Andorrans -- with Roy Keane inspiring that victory 10 years ago -- yet that encounter took place in the relative comfort of Barcelona.
The whipping boys have since developed a determination to stage matches in their own jurisdiction, although the original intention was for this week's game to take place in the Catalan city.
Alas, Irish fans who booked on that premise were disappointed, with Giovanni Trapattoni speculating that some kind of Russian conspiracy was behind UEFA's decision to decree that the game was staged in a unique venue.
However, the other teams in the group all had to go through the same process so, with affairs at the top so finely poised, European football's governing body really had little option. Slovakia escaped with just a single-goal victory, while Russia laboured to a 2-0 success. They had reasons for struggling which Ireland will have to be conscious of this week.
Trapattoni was concerned with the altitude issue yesterday. Andorra is a mountainous country -- it has 65 peaks -- and is located at 1,100 metres above sea level. Indeed, Andorra la Vella is the highest capital city in Europe.
Acclimatisation to altitude can be problematic, as several visitors to South Africa for last summer's World Cup noted. The Irish squad will train in Barcelona tomorrow before making the interesting bus journey through the Pyrenees on Thursday morning.
Should they be going earlier to adapt? Trapattoni says there is little point, given the time frame, stressing the opinion that 10-15 days' preparation is required to get fully up to speed with the conditions. Otherwise, it's better to limit the length of your stay.
The practical issue with expending energy at this altitude is that it can affect some players' breathing, but it is hard to predict how different players will react.
"I played also in Peru, where the altitude is 2,000 metres, and I hadn't a problem," reflected Trapattoni. "But it is a factor and you have to think about it. Also, the repercussions of the first match can be brought into the second one (against the Armenians next Tuesday)."
There were 250 supporters present when Andorra hosted the Russians, and 50 fewer for the visit of Slovakia, so you can appreciate how this created a surreal environment for the opposition, given they have squads with players who are accustomed to operating in noisier surroundings.
It shouldn't be an excuse but there's no doubt that the backdrop can sometimes lead to an air of complacency or a loss of intensity.
The capacity for Friday's game is 850, and it promises to be a sell-out (that would also be a novelty for the Irish international players, given the terrible attendances at the Aviva stadium).
An FAI spokesman yesterday said there would be 200 Irish fans, but there are suggestions that more will be present. Certainly, there are numerous punters heading for Andorra minus a match ticket, while another large contingent will be in Barcelona after receiving premature information about the venue.
There has been a serious scramble for tickets, with the players encouraged to give back their normal allocation aside from those reserved for family members -- 39 have been taken up -- with the rest divided out to fans based on criteria which included attendances at other away matches in the campaign.
Two members of the FAI hierarchy will be present, with president Paddy McCaul set to be the most senior figure. CEO John Delaney had previously stated he would be with the contingent in Barcelona, but it's unclear where he will be in attendance on Friday, with a spokesperson indicating that the Waterford man won't be at the game. At least it'll save him the cost of a tie.
Some enterprising Irish followers have explored the possibility of finding nearby vantage points where they could watch the match for free. This is a policy that will be familiar to League of Ireland fans on their travels to Monaghan United.
Trapattoni has observed that the surface at the Estadi Comunal d'Aixovall is another concern for the away side.
"The pitch is an issue," he said. "I saw our group opponents play there and it was impossible to play well, but we can adapt to every situation."
The 72-year-old was vague on the exact nature of the problem, but it is anticipated that the Andorrans will keep the dimensions small. And it won't be smooth either.
On top of that, Trapattoni feels that the minnows will take an extremely physical approach that would unsettle other teams, especially as it's likely to be chilly with a 9.30pm kick-off (local time, 8.30 Irish time).
However, the Italian believes that the battle-hardened Irish mentality should be capable of overcoming any precious behaviour. Discipline is key.
"Andorra is not good in the table, but they play on this little pitch and their mentality is very, very aggressive," he said. "We must remain calm because every reaction could be very, very dangerous."
Still though, perspective needs to be applied. Andorra are lodged at the bottom of the FIFA rankings and have no points in this qualifying group.
And, as much as they have made things uncomfortable for touring parties, they have also failed to score at home in this campaign. Indeed, the only time they have struck in Group B was a Christian Martinez thunderbolt in Dublin that briefly gave the Aviva faithful the jitters.
Strong minds will be required to ensure that the nervousness on Friday is restricted to the acrophobics.