Sunday 25 February 2018

Comment - Irish fans long for day when World Cup draw matters

Talking Point

Cafu, Laurent Blanc, Nikita Simonyan, Gordon Banks, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan and Carles Puyol pose after yesterday’s rehearsals in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images
Cafu, Laurent Blanc, Nikita Simonyan, Gordon Banks, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan and Carles Puyol pose after yesterday’s rehearsals in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's World Cup draw day and that should be enough to send Irish management, players and supporters reaching for the off switch.

The ceremony in Moscow will simply be a reminder of what they could have won.

Russia could have been the most intriguing chapter in Ireland's major tournament history - a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There is a tendency to paint all Irish fans as banter merchants seeking to serenade nuns on a train or change the tyres of strangers to become viral sensations.

It's an easy generalisation which overlooks the silent (enough) majority who religiously trek to away games - no matter the destination - to take in the football, enjoy the company of their travelling companions and mind their own business.

Some hours after the final whistle of the first leg in Copenhagen, the small bar next to this writer's hotel mostly consisted of fans who were tired and emotional after a long day's exertions. This was not the centre of the party.

They had reached a point where they were staring down into their drinks rather than raising them aloft.

There were a couple of middle-aged men at the counter who appeared to be on their own, mouthing the words of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' from the jukebox shuffle list.

One was wearing an old white jersey with an Opel logo, a reminder of that brief and wonderful era where Ireland reasonably expected to qualify for World Cups. They were dreaming of another.

At this point, those Irishmen and women who were able to make it to Italy, America or Japan and Korea to watch their nation play on that stage should be realising how lucky they were.

Adventure

The tournament in Qatar will be 20 years on from that adventure and the generation that were just too young to travel solo to that competition will be pushing 40 in 2022.

Indeed, there might even be players involved in Ireland's qualification campaign who weren't born for Saipan or for Robbie Keane's famous equaliser against Germany, although it's the absence of a conveyor belt of outstanding young talent that makes it difficult to be optimistic about the World Cup wait being ended in the next cycle.

The age profile of Martin O'Neill's squad is weighted towards players who can vividly remember Ireland's earliest World Cup golden moments. And that's why the Denmark reverse cut so deep. Their moment had passed.

So they can be forgiven for steering clear of Sky Sports News today. For the FAI, there will be a degree of curiosity as their schedule for 2018 could well be determined by events in Moscow.

Ireland do not really operate a similar playing style to Gareth Southgate's England, but it's customary for the latter's World Cup opponents to seek friendlies against sides from the same neck of the woods.

O'Neill was hired after Ireland missed out on the World Cup in Brazil and his first summer of friendlies included matches against Italy and Costa Rica - two sides that were preparing to take on Roy Hodgson's England.

Algeria came to Dublin in 2010 for similar reasons as they were doing their research ahead of frustrating Fabio Capello's miserable troops in their doomed South African campaign.

Irish season-ticket holders expecting games in March and May might get some idea of prospective opponents depending on how proceedings pan out. That said, their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts will be thinking along similar lines.

O'Neill met FAI officials last week when Everton speculation was rife and one of the talking points was related to the schedule for the road ahead.

Ultimately, the Abbotstown hierarchy will have to decide if a run of Dublin friendlies makes sense economically.

The alternative is fixtures at neutral venues that are organised by third parties and come with a flat fee - London and New York have housed a variety of Irish games in the past decade.

In recent years, proper away friendlies have tended to be reciprocal arrangements for encounters in Dublin. O'Neill's second game in charge - an away date with Poland in November 2013 - is the last such example.

There are higher-profile nations in the same boat with the USA sure to make the most of their position and surprise World Cup absentees such as Italy, Holland and Chile able to offer high-quality, warm-up games for competing nations. Ireland may have to take their place in the queue.

This is a particularly deflating reason to be energised by a draw.

Naturally, England's fate will command natural interest here and from Pot 2 they could get lucky; two European sides can draw each other in the same group and they would fancy Poland and Russia from Pot 1. Any other outcome would leave them with difficult opposition.

Iceland are the natural team to adopt, as they are a small nation that have earned their maiden chance, and they are in Pot 3 along with neighbours Sweden and our recent foes, the Danes.

Iran - whose 2002 ambitions were ended in a play-off with Mick McCarthy's side - also scraped into that pot.

They are currently level with O'Neill's Ireland in the world rankings, with each of the eight teams in Pot 4 lower in the charts.

That system can be misleading as it does include Serbia, who were superior to Ireland in qualifying. But the Balkan nation are the only European representative in the bottom drum; Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are the other weakest links.

That's a cast of characters which reflects the global spread of the competition.

With just 13 places available through UEFA qualifying, it's tough to claim the golden ticket - a contrast from the expanded European Championships - and FIFA's plans to dilute their own event by extending it to 48 sides from 2026 have been roundly criticised.

But Irish supporters may come to embrace it if gives them a chance to make some new World Cup memories. The existing ones are fading fast.

How it all works

The draw is due to start at 3pm Irish time and will be live on RTé2 and online.

How will it work?

The 32 teams will be split into eight four-team groups. Each team is in one of four pots, with their position in the FIFA world rankings for October determining which pot they occupy. The exception to that is hosts Russia, who are in Pot One. England are in Pot Two. There can be a maximum of two European sides per group, but no other confederation can have more than one team in a group, so no South American sides will go head to head in the group phase for example.

What's the line-up of the pots?

Pot 1: Russia (hosts), Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France

Pot 2: Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico, Croatia

Pot 3: Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran

Pot 4: Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

What's the worst possible draw for England?

Based on the October FIFA rankings, it would be Germany, Costa Rica and Nigeria. There are other nightmare scenarios too though - Brazil, Sweden and Nigeria would also be pretty unpalatable.

And the best draw?

The easiest draw, based on the rankings, would be Russia, Senegal and Saudi Arabia. But England proved at the 2010 World Cup that any group can be tough, scraping through to the knockout stage with two draws and a win against the United States, Algeria and Slovenia respectively.

Anything else?

'Match of the Day' and BT Sport football host Gary Lineker will be a familiar face to audiences as he co-presents the draw with Russian journalist Maria Komandnaya. Lineker faced criticism for taking on the role after previously speaking out against FIFA over its various corruption scandals.

Irish Independent

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