Ronan McCabe previews this Sunday’s Euro 2016 Qualifying Draw.
These days, international qualifiers are greeted with a mixed range of emotions from many football fans, from blasé ambivalence, to scoffing condescension, to outright contempt at the fixtures’ disruption to the domestic European season. This Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw will be greeted with similar sentiments, with an additional element of scorn and derision being applied to due to the expanded format of the tournament.
With the tournament proper in France hosting 24 teams – up from 16 participants in the last 5 tournaments – many burgeoning nations will view this as their opportunity to make their international mark. The top two teams from each group will qualify automatically, with the third-placed teams contending the usual playoffs, with the exception of the best third-placed team, which will also qualify automatically.The negative implication of this is that nearly half of all the participating countries will qualify, so expect this qualifying campaign to be competitively blunt at the highest level.
The crucial matches are likely to be between the third and fourth seeds in each group. This will translate into ‘crunch matches’ between Slovenia and Latvia, and Israel and Armenia. Nearly half of the teams participating in qualification will reach the tournament proper; an unprecedented figure. Bizarrely, France will participate in qualifying despite being guaranteed a place in the tournament as hosts, though their position in the group will be discounted for qualifying purposes. France’s fixtures have been labelled ‘centralised friendlies’ in true UEFA-speak fashion.
On a positive note, the expansion of the number of teams in the tournament by 50% means Ireland’s chances of qualifying are much improved. Ireland can count their lucky stars to be placed in the second pot of seeds despite a miserable fourth-placed finish in their recent World Cup qualifying group. They would not fancy their chances against any of their contemporaries in that pot, so avoiding many second-tier European nations is a plus. Sweden, for example – who efficiently put Ireland to the sword at Lansdowne Road last September in a pivotal qualifying game – can not be drawn against Ireland.
However, avoiding a genuine European heavyweight is nigh-on impossible, with all the usual elite teams in the top seeded pot. Spain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are amongst the top seeds and are joined by Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the most exciting emerging teams in Europe. On form, Ireland should arguably be placed in the third pot of teams, but being placed in the second, as they are, is a massive advantage.
The dream draw for Ireland would probably be Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Estonia, Moldova and San Marino. On the other hand, a tough campaign could be ahead if Ireland are drawn against Spain, Serbia, Armenia, Iceland and Kazakhstan. Even in that latter scenario however, Ireland should still fancy their chances of finishing in the top 2 automatic qualification spots, particularly if Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane can continue to reinvigorate what had become a tired setup. Bearing in mind the abundant number of qualification places, the duo will have few excuses for failing to qualify.
Another initiative from UEFA is the so-called ‘Week of Football’, which will draw additional groans of frustration from supporters of teams in domestic teams across Europe. This concept will involve each team playing twice over the course of a Thursday-Tuesday timeframe, thus potentially taking up two midweek and one weekend slot of domestic football. Platini’s lofty idea seems to envisage the fanciful notion of football fans across the continent watching Iceland-Finland on a Thursday, before waiting with trembling anticipation for Poland-Latvia on Friday followed by Estonia-Macedonia on the Saturday.
If all this seems to taint and make a further mockery of an already derided process, just wait until Euro 2020, when there will be no single fixed host as Platini seeks to take the tournament on a ridiculous transcontinental roadshow, with fixtures taking place anywhere from Moscow to Manchester. A continent holds its breath.
Pundit Arena, Ronan McCabe.