The long road to Qatar and the 2022 World Cup finals begins for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in Amsterdam on Tuesday with the draw for the 2020 Nations League groups.
hy is it linked to the World Cup? Because the two teams who do best in the 2020 Nations League, and do not qualify directly for the World Cup or for the play-offs, will get a Golden Ticket into those play-offs.
And both the Republic and Northern Ireland are ranked right on the cusp of where those two tickets will probably fall.
UEFA have divided the Nations League draw into three tiers. The top one contains the best 16 teams on the Continent, the bottom one has the Andorras and San Marinos of this world. The two sets of Boys in Green are in the 16 teams in the middle tier.
So when all the games in the Nations League are over, the two Irelands will be ranked between 17th and 32nd, depending on how many points they have taken, how many goals they have scored etc.
Where it becomes vital to be as high up that 17 to 32 table as we can, is that so many of the countries ahead of the two Irelands from the top tier, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain etc, will qualify automatically for the World Cup, or at least get into the play-offs.
The teams in our tier who do really well in the matches in September, October and November this year have a great chance of getting a precious play-off place.
And that will be important when actual qualifying for the World Cup starts in 2021. The direct route, and even getting to a play-off, will be really tough for the Irish teams.
There will be ten groups with the winners going straight to the Finals. The 10 runners-up will join the two Nations League teams in a pool of 12 for the qualifiers – with only three teams going to Qatar as those World Cup play-offs will be on same lines as the Euro 2020 play-offs next month.
Two one-leg semi-finals and a final a few days later will decide who gets the last places at the first-ever World Cup Finals tournament in an Arab nation.
Mick McCarthy and Michael O'Neill will represent their associations at the draw in Amsterdam on Tuesday, even though neither man will be in charge for the Nations League fixtures.
The FAI wanted to send Stephen Kenny, who will be the Republic's boss next Autumn, but UEFA insisted on the current manager attending.
It all prompted Mick McCarthy to say "don't worry, I'll be well able to talk about whoever we draw and anyway there will be plenty of managers at it who will be getting 'the tin tack' after the Euros. They just don't know yet that they will be leaving, as I do."
Our tier is divided into four sub-sections, with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the same section, so they cannot meet.
Below shows you just who they can draw. Austria, Norway and troubled Bulgaria, who will have to play a home match or two behind closed doors, would be the best option - Russia, Serbia and Romania would constitute a 'Group of Death'. It would be hard to see either Irish side, both under new management remember, knocking 10 or 11 points out of six matches against that sort of opposition.
All will be revealed on Tuesday!
NATIONS LEAGUE DRAW
– TIER TWO
Pot 1 – Russia, Austria, Wales, Czech Republic
Pot 2 – Scotland, Norway, Serbia, Finland
Pot 3 – REPUBLIC OF IRELAND, NORTHERN IRELAND, Slovakia, Turkey
Pot 4 – Bulgaria, Israel, Hungary, Romania