At the preliminary draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification later on today in St. Petersburg, we can expect the typical razzmatazz that accompanies such a high-profile affair. Yet the rehearsed smiles and excitement of FIFA president Sepp Blatter must be taken with a pinch of salt, as the FIFA juggernaut seems to be crashing and burning in front of his and all of our eyes. The Irish contingent present or viewing on television must watch on with anxiousness galore as our fate for another campaign might well, in the eyes of cynics and pessimists alike, end right there and then, depending on the draw itself. Overall, there is an undeniable sense that disaster is looming in the internal world of soccer.
Off the field of play, extradition after extradition due to claims of officials being bribed have all taken their toll on the overall reputation of the floundering organisation at the head of association football worldwide. Claims of bribery are not a new phenomenon for FIFA and for Blatter, yet the recent arrests and FBI investigation have decimated the already-tested patience of the football community as a whole. So, Blatter has announced his term as president will finally come to an end in February 2016, yet many feel the damage has been done. His successor must now face the furore surrounding the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with a new human rights issue cropping up every time we forget about the last. If his successor survives through that much, they must then face into 4 more years of scrutiny over the highly controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The fact that Russia would be hosting the World Cup of 2018 was not forgotten by the public after it was announced in December 2010, but rather treated as the lesser of two evils when compared to Qatar being awarded the 2022 tournament. However, the more attention that is paid to Russia, the more issues to be found. The unwelcoming vibe (to put it mildly) for homosexuals and races other than white has been heavily publicised, thinking back to Donal Óg Cusack’s documentary for example, as well as Yaya Toure’s harrowing racial abuse during a club game for Manchester City against CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League in 2013. A more recent example would be just last week when Emmanuel Frimpong was sent off for reacting to racist chants by Spartak Moscow fans playing for his new club FC Ufa. We’re told FIFA have asked for answers from the RFA on the issue, yet one can hardly be blamed for doubting the legitimacy of a FIFA-led investigation (if it can even be called that) given their recent history with inward investigations. The racism and homophobic issue as a whole in Russia will not be solved by sport, yet awareness and recognition are the first steps to eradication and these highly-publicised incidents cannot simply go down in vain. Recognition of the problem of racism is on its reluctant way from Minister for Sport in Moscow Vitaly Mutko, while the world will continue to become aware of the rest of this iceberg.
On the field, the Republic of Ireland must now pay the price for their faltering results. One and a half disappointing campaigns have left Ireland in Pot 4 for the draw, meaning on paper there will be three teams better than Ireland in the one group. This sounds daunting, yet this is a game not played on paper and there are potentially beatable teams in Pots 1, but more so 2 and 3, that the Republic would not be afraid of. However, there is a difference between “not being afraid” of a team and “being confident of victory” against a team. This, in my opinion, is the difference between the Irish and the top teams. One might speculate that some European countries officially ranked higher than us in FIFA’s books are well within Ireland’s reach and possibly on par with us.
Yet, Ireland’s results do suggest otherwise. As for the Pot 1 teams, you must go back 4 years for a competitive victory over one of the top tiered sides, a 3-0 win over Wales in the Carling Nations Cup. This stretches back to a 1-0 win over Wales in a 2007 European Championship qualifier in Croke Park if you don’t count the Nations Cup, which was taken lightly, I think it’s fair to say. The last Irish victory over a Pot 2 team was in that very same week in 2007, a 1-0 home win over Slovakia in Croker. Scotland are the last Pot 3 team Ireland have beaten competitively, again the Carling Nations Cup in 2011, while before that was all the way back in June 2003, when the Republic beat Albania 2-1 in Lansdowne Road. Am I making my point? I understand that Ireland have not played all of the teams ranked above them in recent times, yet 2 games each against the likes of Scotland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Slovakia, France, Italy and Bulgaria have all passed without a single Irish victory since those 2007 victories in Croke Park.
These are teams we wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of facing, but any confidence we have had in victory has proved to be a form of patriotic optimism at best, unfounded delusion at worst. So our results have finally caught up with us, draws with these teams are no longer good enough, wins are a must. Coming from Pot 4, qualification might already be an unreasonable target, yet an improvement in our seeding is paramount if we are ever to get back to a major tournament. For our lack of big wins, we’ve been punished with an even tougher group. If we don’t win big next time round, we will find ourselves with an unenviable task of rising up the rankings at a never before seen pace.
I say unenviable and not impossible, because it is possible. We can take solace from our neighbours Wales, who, in recent years, have shot up the rankings and now find themselves in Pot 1 of the European countries in today’s draw. However, to say “Wales can do it and therefore we can too” will not suffice. Those at the head of the FAI must use Wales as an example to follow with their actions, not as a tool to maintain our blind optimism solely with their words. Luck of the draw can be important in defining our aspirations but we need more than optimism and luck. Hopefully Blatter’s successor can provide the breath of fresh air urgently needed in world football. For the moment, the future of controversial World Cups and tougher and tougher campaigns for Ireland looks bleak…