Distant European outpost. Small but intimidating stadium. A place at the Euros at stake.
We’ve been here before. Four years ago, to be precise, when the Republic of Ireland played Estonia at the A Le Coq Arena in Tallinn. Alas, Bosnia would appear to be no Estonia and the other major difference between the play-offs then and now is that Ireland simply haven’t earned their second chance this time around.
Martin O’Neill’s side may have scalped the world champions in Dublin, but the Boys in Green ended the group stages in third place behind Joachim Low’s Germany and Poland. That used to earn you nothing only regrets, but the decision to open the Euros up to eight more teams has moved the goalposts.
At what point do we say enough is enough? Literally.
The Euro play-offs are taking place just days after Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino launched his bid to be Fifa’s next boss by revealing plans to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 40 if elected president. Infantino actually justified this on the back of the “success” of expanding the Euros to 24 sides though we haven’t as yet even witnessed a 24-team European Championship.
That’s some brazen spinning right there, but there’s more.
“Look at qualifiers now where some teams who have never qualified did and some teams which have always qualified didn’t make it. So it created a completely new dynamic in the qualification. It created new enthusiasm. If you are serious about developing football it must involve more associations in the best football event in the world: the World Cup.” Never mind that Northern Ireland, Wales, Albania and Iceland — some of the countries to which we presume Infantino was referring — all reached France next summer by finishing in the top two of their groups rather than through the back door as Ireland and others will attempt over this weekend and beyond.
Let’s face it, the whole thing is a joke.
Sixteen teams got to play in the last European Championship in 2012 and Ireland were one of them on account of the fact that they finished second behind Russia and then received the rub of the play-off draw by being paired with an Estonian side that proved to be woefully out of its depth and which was duly walloped 4-0 in that first leg.
We often cringe at the mortification the country as a whole experienced after Thierry Henry’s sleight of hand in Paris in 2009, which precipitated the embarrassing episode around the possibility of the Republic being included as the 33rd team at the tournament in South Africa, yet our role in this charade is just as embarrassing.
It was the Football Association of Ireland and their counterparts in the Scottish FA who first proposed that the Euros be extended to 24 teams, let’s not forget. That was subsequently approved by the blazers in Nyon in 2008 and John Delaney was vocal in his belief that this was a great big victory for our great little country.
“I am very glad that our proposal has been approved by Uefa,” said the FAI chief executive at the time. “This has huge relevance for Irish fans as it gives middle-tier countries like Ireland a better opportunity to qualify.” What is that if not an embrace of mediocrity? Don’t bother raising the bar, like, just drag it down further towards a height more easily negotiable.
Admittedly, there is a strong whiff of nostalgia informing this view. This column was fortunate enough to take in Ireland’s three games in Stuttgart, Hanover and Gelsenkirchen at Euro ’88 when entry was barred to all but the best eight teams on the continent. That was a format for the footballing purist though commercial realities meant it would never last.
It is those same commercial realities which have seen both the Euros and the World Cup stray away from the rather streamlined affairs they once were and into something akin to the bloated monstrosity that is the modern Olympic Games. We can kid ourselves that it is the fans who gain most from the ‘more is more’ approach, but who can believe that anymore?
Bigger isn’t better, it is simply more profitable and, if the latest revelations emanating from the investigations into the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) this week reinforce anything, it is the potentially corrosive effect which so much money in the hands of so few people at the very top of the pyramids can have on our most cherished pastimes.
None of which will concern any of the players, coaches, supporters or indeed commercial partners of the eight sides scrapping for the last four golden tickets to France last night in Oslo and in seven other European venues across the next five days.
Ireland may not make it this time. The odds stand against them.
If they do, they are unlikely to be squeezed into a group heaving with so many heavyweights as four years ago, but whatever the outcome tonight in Zenica and next week in the Aviva, the fact is that none of the teams striving to make France in these play-offs really deserve their passage to Euro 2016.
They had that already and they blew it.
- Email: Brendan.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: @Rackob
Bad decision, get it right lads
Sport shouldn’t usually be treated seriously enough to keep you awake at night – unless in celebration – but the Leinster Council’s decision to fix Dublin’s provincial quarter-final against Laois or Wicklow for Kilkenny’s Nowlan Park next summer made for a fitful night’s sleep on Wednesday.
As a native of Laois, this column has some skin in this game, but the failure of the delegates to offer the winners of Laois/Wicklow the option of home advantage is nothing short of disgraceful and has made a mockery of the belated decision to ask the Dubs to travel beyond the Red Cow.
Dublin are the game’s pin-up boys.
Their possible presence in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise next year would have amounted to a golden promotional opportunity for the locals, but instead they have decided to send this marketing manna to the most barren footballing county in Ireland.
Yeah, good thinking there lads.
The fact Nowlan Park has more seats than O’Moore Park should have been neither here nor there. Nothing to do with finance. O’Moore Park is one of the best venues in the country so what does it say that it is deemed unsuitable for a game like this after the millions spent on it?
Dublin will win the game whichever team they play and at whatever venue.
This isn’t about them, it is about a body which had the opportunity to right an obvious wrong but which lost its nerve when it felt it’s back was to the wall.
Lads, ye had one job to do…