Thursday 27 October 2016

Fears that Pot 4 would doom Ireland's chances of World Cup qualification didn't materialise

Published 25/07/2015 | 18:40

Former Russian soccer player Aleksandr Kerzhakov holds up the slip showing
Former Russian soccer player Aleksandr Kerzhakov holds up the slip showing "Ireland" during the preliminary draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia

NO matter how hard a bunch of middle-aged and elderly men try to look like they are down with the young people, FIFA will always get things like the World Cup draw wrong.

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They never spend quite enough money to really make the show rock and throw a few cultural knick-knacks onto the stage between pots to entertain the vast audience they believe hang on every word of events like this.

But we don’t’ really. Not any more anyway. There was a time when this sort of stuff brought a glitz and glamour to people’s lives by letting them dream of hot summer nights and football in exotic places.

Now, apart from the bit which actually means something, the rest is so much dead air. A few good-looking model types, a load of old pros and the Blatterati, men who owe their luxurious lives to the man who was snapped shaking hands with Vlad Putin before the event.

Blatter looks haunted at the moment and can only travel, it would seem, to places where the locals don’t want to throw him in jail. That would be Russia, Qatar and maybe Switzerland though that’s in play.

No chance Putin would throw his old mucker Sepp in the clink. Peas in a pod, those two.

Martin  O’Neill wondered before the draw why it was happening and the dust still swirling around the Euro 2016 qualifying groups. He should know better.

Given the major resources currently being thrown at investigations into the bid process for both the 2018 and 2020 World Cup final tournaments, FIFA obviously reckoned it would be smart to get the ball rolling, so to speak, before the Feds turned up with yellow tape and warrants.

How sad it is to watch two of the great sporting franchises, the World Cup draw and the Tour de France, afflicted by doubts about drugs, corruption and self-interest.

But back to the draw, a televisual Alp d’Huez for the viewer and you’ll never get the time given to it back.

No doubt they were dancing in the streets of Curacao and other such places when their names popped out of the balls but it meant nothing to most of us. Groups within groups and phases after sub-groups. Enough already.

They love that stuff FIFA. All we wanted to see was RofI and the Tricolour slotted into a decent group but instead we got applied maths.

Then they played some jazz inspired by football and the heart sank. Fat-faced Blazers smiled smug smiles and a Russian Ryan Tubridy grinned wildly when very talented musicians segued into Ole Ole Ole.

And then finally, Europe and Ireland.

With the minnows out of the way, it was down to the serious stuff. Moldova and Georgia won’t do much at the turnstiles to help reduce the Aviva debt and the logistics will be difficult but neither team should concern O’Neill.

Then out came Serbia, the current Under 20 World champions. They’ve had a nightmare Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, lost 3 points over a bit of drone madness during the Belgrade clash with Albania and all in all, not a bad opponent.

Belgrade is short hop from Vienna and nobody was smiling when Austria came out next, more for historical reason than anything else. We haven’t done well against them in recent times.

And then the bonus at the end. Wales. The team everyone wanted from the top pot.

First impressions? Could have been an awful lot worse. No big beasts to worry about and fears that Ireland’s Pot 4 position would doom us to at least four heavy duty games against top teams didn’t materialise.

Put it this way, Northern Ireland, enjoying the benefits of a much less challenging road to France 2016 than their southern cousins but pooled with Germany and the Czech Republic in the draw, would take your hand off if you offered a swap.

After the  draw, O'Neill called it about right.

"Teams will take points off each other, it's that kind of group," he said.

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