Friday 19 April 2019

FAI and Martin O'Neill banking on luck of Russian World Cup draw

Boardroom and dressing room may be hoping for different outcomes in World Cup pools but England would be ideal opponents for both parties

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
World Cup 2018 - European Qualifiers Draw
The palace where the World Cup draw will take place
World Cup
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This evening, John Delaney will sit next to Martin O'Neill in the Constantine Palace hoping for some more good business from FIFA.

After stumbling into the global headlines by detailing the €5m Thierry Henry-related 'loan' that the FAI received following an expletive-laden meeting with Sepp Blatter, Irish football's CEO appeared to be surprised by the backlash.

Last weekend, amid the orgy of backslapping otherwise known as the FAI's AGM, the deal was a source of merriment, with Delaney quipping that he should have asked for €10m. It raised a few smiles but, of course, that hints at a stark reality which is no laughing matter.

Given the size of the bank debt primarily arising from the commitment to the Aviva Stadium - a figure that now exceeds €50m - the FAI needed the money to ease the pressure.

World Cup 2018 - European Qualifiers Draw

In tandem with O'Neill (right), Delaney will be looking for the luck of the draw from FIFA today although, considering the commercial importance of the senior team, the FAI's definition of luck could diverge from the dressing-room's interpretation.

In the annual financial report that was dispensed to the silent delegates in Sligo, a familiar note spelled out a simple truth.

"The association is dependent upon the income generated by the success of the senior international team by way of ticket revenue, sponsorship and television revenue to continue to invest in all aspects of football throughout the country," read the text under the heading of 'Principal Risks and Uncertainties Facing the Association.'

"Any variances in the revenue being generated from such activities may affect the level of such investment."

UEFA's centralised TV deal has provided certainty with regard to TV income; all associations will receive €10m a year. However, that has removed flexibility in terms of bartering for the order of fixtures.

Eamon Breen, the finance director, explained at the AGM that 2014 had posed issues because the vagaries of the rota had thrown up a calendar year where a clash with Gibraltar was the only competitive home fixture.

The FAI expect a better return this year due to the games with Poland, Scotland and Germany, which tick all the boxes in terms of public interest and travelling support.

They have to view draws with such factors in mind. For the manager, players and hardcore fans it is straightforward; they want the easiest route possible.

What the small print of the UEFA deal has ensured is that landing in one of the two groups of five - the other seven groups will have six teams - will be attractive from a football perspective and potentially unappealing from the commercial standpoint.

UEFA have demanded that top seeds Germany, Holland, England and Spain and second seeds Italy and France must be in groups of six in order to make sense of the centralised TV rights arrangement.

This means that winding up in a five-team group would leave Portugal, Belgium, Wales, Romania and Croatia as the only options from Pot 1.

Take Italy and France out of Pot 2 and the options are more palatable; in truth the dramatic manner with which nations can move up and down the FIFA rankings in a small window mean that the variance in quality between a section of Pot 2, all of Pot 3 and Ireland's Pot 4 is minimal.

Put simply, a six-team group with, say, Germany and France would be a fantastic result for the short-term cashflow levels.


For O'Neill, though, a five-team with Wales and Iceland would be splendid; the pay-off for the FAI would be based on securing the necessary results.

And, as attractive as they may look on paper, Wales and Iceland both have younger squads and a progressive profile, so there would be no basis for being too confident.

Nevertheless, as O'Neill suggested last week, it's far better than being in a group where the identity of the winners is apparent from the outset - especially in the World Cup, where only one side qualifies automatically.

"I said it at the start, when we had the draw in Nice (for Euro 2016), that there are certain teams - the top sides - like Germany who might have hiccups here and there but you just know when the group is finished they will qualify," said O'Neill.

"That's not me being pessimistic, absolutely not. We got a draw out there after all and I feel we're capable of giving them a real proper game when they play here in October. But there are certain teams which you know over a period of time will slightly lessen your chances."

O'Neill sensed straight away in France that the Euros challenge would be a real test, with second-seed status offering no security.

On that occasion, Ireland's section was drawn out last, which meant he had time to survey all the other options before the balls were pulled from the drum.

"At the stage where our name was drawn out, the ratio at the time to get into groups that you would have felt you would have a really decent chance was actually quite good," he recalled, with a sigh.

Ireland were assigned to Group D, just as England's Group E was starting to look attractive in every category.

The Derry man is not impressed by FIFA's move to a summer draw before the Euros campaign is finishing, believing that the end of that road would paint a fairer picture. He is conscious that other associations have sought to improve their place in the FIFA charts by targeting winnable friendlies.

"Results of friendly matches become important, which I probably didn't realise on day one coming in here," he said.

"But I would rather play friendlies coming up a competition that are really going to test you. Being tested against Portugal, Costa Rica and Italy beforehand was beneficial to us."

Still, competitive results still carry the most weight, so stronger performances during O'Neill's long honeymoon would only really have secured a move up to Pot 3, where Euro rivals Poland and Scotland are the teams to avoid.

Northern Ireland, Albania and Hungary appeal. In addition to Iceland, Slovakia and Czech Republic would be reasonable opponents from Pot 2.

Pot 5 will have fans digging into their pockets no matter the result. A Baltic jaunt to either Latvia and Lithuania stands out as attractive rivals for all parties.

If there is to be a sixth team in Ireland's table, then dodging Kazakhstan and Georgia will be the priority.

Incidentally, hosts Russia will be added to the rota for one of the five-team groups in order to give the already qualified hosts a steady stream of friendlies.

There will be 12 stadiums in 11 host cities at the 2018 tournament. Organisers are also offering base camps for the 32 teams in a range of places, including Grozny, the capital of the Chechnya, despite clashes there between authorities and Islamic militants.

The other five-team group will receive help from UEFA from a scheduling standpoint to facilitate friendlies on the free dates arising from their reduced quantity of fixtures. (FIFA's refusal to recognise Gibraltar explains why there are two five-team groups in the World Cup race.)

In the circumstances, O'Neill, who has indicated that he expects to stay on barring a dismal autumn, could live with surplus friendlies if it meant a kinder route to a Russian adventure. He has denied that the outcome of this evening's proceedings in the lavish venue will determine his enthusiasm for another two years.

The Abbotstown hierarchy, on the other hand, require a strategy to drive ticket sales and ancillary benefits. There is an obvious ideal world scenario which would delight the bean counters and enthuse the players rather than intimidate them.

After that near-miss in Nice, a competitive reunion with England is long overdue. In the current climate, it would be ironic if the FAI associate the start of Blatter's long goodbye with another unexpected Irish jackpot.

World Cup draw,

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