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.
Why is it linked to the World Cup? 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 ticket into those play-offs. And both the Republic and Northern Ireland are ranked right on the cusp of where those two tickets will 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 Republic and Northern Ireland are in the 16-team 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 that precious play-off place. And that will be important when 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 ten 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 the same lines as the Euro 2020 play-off next month. Two one-leg semi-finals and a final will decide who gets the last World Cup places.
Mick McCarthy and Michael O'Neill will represent their associations at the draw in Amsterdam, even though neither man will be in charge for the Nations League games.
The FAI wanted to send Stephen Kenny, who will lead the Republic 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."
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are in the same pot so they cannot meet.
WHO CAN WE DRAW?
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