Luck of the draw for Ireland as World Cup hopes rise in St Petersburg
The delegates who filed into the Constantine Palace, a lavish venue on the outskirts of St Petersburg, for yesterday's World Cup 2018 draw were met with FIFA banners proclaiming that 'The dream starts here.'
For Martin O'Neill and the Irish delegation, that dream lives on after a group that was shaping up to be very difficult was softened by landing unlikely top seeds Wales.
Austria, the second seeds, are also well on their way to France for Euro 2016 next summer but, sitting in the draw hall, O'Neill was happy when they emerged considering that Italy and France were alternative options. Prior to that, he had a bad feeling with Serbia, Georgia and Moldova as confirmed opponents in a process that was conducted in reverse order with the sides from Pot One pulled out last.
"When Serbia came in from Pot Three, you're fearing the worst at that particular stage," admitted O'Neill. His perspective had changed when Wales were assigned to Group D, with the Derryman keen to avoid another meeting with a powerhouse like Germany.
Last week, the Irish manager spoke at length about the permutations of the draw and kept returning to the rise of Wales from sixth seeds to first seeds as evidence that there was a flaw in FIFA's rankings. He repeated that viewpoint afterwards, while reluctant to go overboard, perhaps conscious that it could be interpreted as disrespectful by Chris Coleman's charges. "Wales will be quite happy with the group they're in too," he stressed.
The 63-year-old dismissed the suggestion that the Welsh are a one man team reliant on Gareth Bale. "Aaron Ramsey has been a fairly decent player for a couple of years," he continued, with a smile. "Wales have gelled, they've got excellent results against Belgium and there's a lot of confidence about their side now.
"They could go to France, light the place up, do exceptionally well and come into the World Cup campaign with great confidence but I think, getting back to the point, if you were to speak to the coaches of the other sides, they'd say they are happy to be in the group. I'm happy enough to be in it."
Serbia, the current under 20 champions, will certainly sense an opportunity given that their Euros ambitions are already dead and buried with a three point deduction compounding poor results. Their team will have a young profile, similar to an Austrian generation that has grown in confidence since the Brazil 2014 qualifying phase where they took four points from Ireland and brought down the curtain on Giovanni Trapattoni thanks to a pair of late goals from David Alaba.
Ireland have never played Moldova before, but are familiar with Georgia who will be the next visitors to Dublin in September. They'll be seeking revenge after Aiden McGeady's late winner denied them a result in Tbilisi on the opening day of the Euro 2016 race. Since then they have struggled, but they were still the most dangerous team in Pot Six.
O'Neill was in no mood to discuss whether he will be sticking around for the next campaign having spoken at length in Sligo last week. He has a rebuilding job to do given the age profile of his dressing room, and is confident that contract talks with the FAI will happen later in the year. However, he was denied the pleasure of John Delaney's company on this trip, with FAI President Tony Fitzgerald representing the board.
This disappointed members of the global media who approached their Irish counterparts to ask about Delaney's whereabouts, with the revelation that the FAI received €5m from world football's governing body after Thierry Henry's Paris handball still a source of both amusement and curiosity.
Of course, Delaney made that deal public in a series of interviews where he spoke out against the leadership of Sepp Blatter. One can only assume that he disapproves of the brazen manner in which the FIFA chief has continued to carry out formal duties despite his imminent departure under a cloud of shame. Blatter was joined on stage by Vladimir Putin beforehand and the pair exchanged warm greetings.
The Russians have supported Blatter through his turbulent year, and he has backed them in return despite outside criticism of their successful bid tied in with the ogre that is Qatar 2022.
Earlier this week, Brazilian striker Hulk, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg, expressed his fear that racism could mar the tournament after experiencing it consistently. He was due to be part of the draw process, but was replaced at the last minute with FIFA insisting that club commitments were the reason.
There will be unattractive aspects to this staging, but the FAI desperately want to be involved in it. O'Neill will travel home believing that it's possible.
Sunday Indo Sport