Thursday 22 February 2018

Martin O'Neill relaxed about options as controversy hangs over European draw

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino is all smiles at UEFA's executive committee in Paris yesterday
UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino is all smiles at UEFA's executive committee in Paris yesterday
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

As the press conference which was intended to focus on the finances and logistics of Euro 2016 drew to a close, UEFA general secretary and FIFA presidential candidate Gianni Infantino sought to finish proceedings on a positive note.

"The wish for next year is that we can focus on football," said Infantino, who is now acting as the face of UEFA with Michel Platini on the sidelines.

Earlier in the day, Platini's attempt to have his suspension from football lifted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had failed and there seems to be no end to the turmoil.

Infantino started the order of business for what is usually a straightforward event by announcing that an extraordinary congress will take place in February. At this stage, every UEFA summit appears to fall under that category.

Meanwhile, sitting to his right, Jacques Lambert, the head of the Euro 2016 organising committee, expressed his sadness that the man who did so much to bring this tournament to his native country will be absent from the draw and the associated pomp and ceremony.

"I'm disappointed because Michel Platini has been behind this process from the beginning," he said. "Michel has perhaps lost a battle today but he hasn't lost the war."


His support of Platini will provoke debate and the choice of language, in the circumstances, was unfortunate given that Paris is still coming to terms with the devastating terrorist attacks a month ago which put everything else in perspective.

The attacks also raised fears about the safety of the competition for travelling fans and the top table at yesterday's gig in the lavish Hotel Meridian repeatedly stressed that security will be the main priority in the build-up to June.

Lambert was reluctant to go into serious detail, though, giving the impression that the meat of the plans will have to be worked out as a joint effort between his team and the French authorities, a merger of public and private interests.

"The French authorities are involved in terms of keeping public order on the towns, the roads and the transport and the organiser is responsible for security within the stadium," he explained.

Several major calls are up for debate, including the retention or otherwise of the Fanzones, which function as a hub of social activity in the host cities. Lambert gave the impression that he is in favour of keeping them, suggesting that a concentration of fans in the same area could make things easier.

"If you want a security arrangement to be effective, it has to remain confidential," he asserted.

For now, Paris is a city trying to return to normality, and the security presence yesterday was not as intensive as visitors might have expected. Unsurprisingly, there will be a heavier operation around the Palais des Congres leading up to this evening's festivities. As ever, the hope is that sport can function as a positive distraction from other matters.

Certainly, it has succeeded in grabbing the headlines again this week, albeit for all the wrong reasons after the confirmation that Karim Benzema has been suspended from the national team as an investigation continues into his role in a plot to extort money from his team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

The allegation is that Benzema encouraged Valbuena to pay blackmailers that were demanding money to destroy a sex tape. With the Real Madrid star in a legal battle to avoid a jail term, the extraordinary tale could have serious implications for the host country's chances next summer.

Given French football's predisposition towards controversy in recent years, there is perhaps a reassuring familiarity about this brand of drama.

After a happy couple of weeks revelling in the defeat of Bosnia, this soiree will accelerate Irish preparations for a sixth crack at a major tournament. FAI staff have been working away in the background with this date circled in the calendar.

Before travelling to the French capital, Martin O'Neill casually mentioned security as one of the angles that might have to be factored into the team's choice of training base, specifically when it comes to deciding how much travel to commit to during the competition.

"I think if you're not a million miles from an airport, you will be okay," he said, "But with security and such things, there might be added pressure so let's see how the draw works out and where we are.

"I think it's in the back of everyone's mind, the possibility of things that might develop," he said, when asked to elaborate. "Like anything else, you can put in the best security in the world and still find you'll not be able to prevent anything from happening. But is that to the forefront of my mind? Not really.

"Qualification and the excitement in qualifying, the delight in qualifying, is still there. I'm absolutely delighted to be going and I'm sure the fans will be as well."

That sense of exhilaration should take hold again by this evening when the elongated draw eventually concludes with a firm itinerary for the group games and an idea of the scale of task that lies ahead. And it shouldn't be any other way; the onus is on all travelling supporters to make the competition an uplifting celebration

O'Neill didn't want to give the impression that the pressure was off now that his primary mission in the job has been achieved, yet he acknowledged that the levels of apprehension will be different from the qualifying draw in Nice 22 months ago which dealt him a nasty hand. He referenced the confidence gained from beating Bosnia too, when a feature of the build-up to that play-off draw was obsessing over nightmare scenarios.


"I can contrast this situation with Nice, where there was a stage that were three other groups I'd rather have been in," he said, "Once I saw the long name, the Republic of Ireland, I remember thinking that's pretty tough. I was concerned about being drawn against Germany and Poland who were very decent, a resurgent Scotland and dark horses in Georgia, we weren't sure what to expect there.

"And then I thought at one stage when the draw came out for the play-off matches, well, don't get Ukraine, don't get that, and then you think, well, who do you want? And it fell to us, to Bosnia, a top 20 team, and we were able to knock them out.

"I'm a bit more relaxed about it now, in that sense. I am going there with a freer mind, whoever we get. I'm feeling okay, alright, whatever will be, will be. That's how I feel."

The logistics of picking an abode for the competition will sort themselves out as the draw is digested, with the FAI's director of operations Peter Sherrard identifying several options pending the outcome of an exercise which has a range of permutations because the groups are not regionalised.

Just two of the 24 nations will play two group games in the same city - Paris - and internal travel will be a factor. "We will know after the draw whether we are north or south," said O'Neill, "Other people might have booked things. Holland booked way back, years in advance, and they never made it so I'm delighted to be there. The possibilities are endless."

What is certain is that O'Neill will adopt a different stance to his predecessor, Giovanni Trapattoni, with regard to the pre-tournament preparations. Ireland must be in France five days before their first match, a regulation that existed in 2012, and Trapattoni warmed up for that with a week in Italy and a trip to Hungary for a friendly match which meant the group had been away for 15 days before the opener with Croatia. The absence of a break had a negative impact on the camp.

"It's almost an Italian way," stressed O'Neill, "You take away teams away for a certain length of time and they have won World Cups and championships to prove that's decent. We all have our own way of working at things.

"Players nowadays don't like to be away too long. He is never a million miles away from an app or mobile phone, as none of us are, but we will see. I am hoping we might have a little period with them, maybe a few days, to try and get players back to proper fitness."

Whatever happens here, he is determined to allow the carry good vibes into Christmas. "In four months, I'll be my apprehensive self again," he said, with a grin.

Nevertheless, both O'Neill and his employers will be aware that a favourable rolling of the drum could open the path to the round of 16 and all the benefits that go with that. For the smaller nations that need the riches from dining at the top table, this trip really is all about the football.

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