Martin O’Neill has already expressed surprise at the World Cup draw taking place well before the Euro qualifying campaign has run its course but the manager will still be part of the FAI delegation at the Konstantin Palace today when Ireland will be one of 52 European teams — Russia, as hosts, are exempted and Gibraltar are not yet members of Fifa — going into seven groups of six and two of five, with the games set to take place between September 4 2016 and October 10 2017.
It should also be noted that, for television purposes, Uefa have requested that England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands must be drawn into groups containing six teams.
The nine group winners will qualify for Russia 2018, while the eight best group-runners up will take part in play-offs in November 2017.
Based on the Fifa rankings as of this month, Ireland’s fourth seed allocation means they are bound to face a challenging route to Russia, irrespective of what’s revealed by today’s draw, with surprise packages Wales probably the most agreeable name in a Pot 1 which otherwise contains heavyweights Germany, Spain, England, Netherlands, Portugal and Belgium alongside Croatia and Romania.
Standing out as formidable second seeds are Italy and France while, potential opposition in Pot 3 includes familiar sides such as Scotland, Poland, Northern Ireland and Sweden.
In theory, the Republic could end up in a ‘home nations’ group containing two other sides from these islands, including either England or Wales (from Pot 1) and Northern Ireland or Scotland (from Pot 3).
Whether Martin O’Neill is still in charge of the Irish team when the World Cup campaign begins in September of next year remains to be seen, although recent signals from the manager — and, indeed, his attendance in St Petersburg today — suggest that, barring a catastrophic end to the Euro campaign, an agreement will be reached with the FAI to extend his contract for a further two years.
An altogether bigger question, of course, is whether the finals will actually go ahead in Russia in 2018, given the ongoing corruption investigations into Fifa’s controversial awarding of the hosting rights for the next World Cup and the succeeding one in Qatar in 2022.
The Swiss Attorney General said recently that he would have no qualms if the outcome of the investigation meant Russia being stripped of the finals but, on the eve of today’s draw, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has insisted: “We are in no doubt that Russia will host the World Cup.”
Among the football superstars who will be assisting in the draw in front of 2,000 guests are Uruguay’s Diego Forlan and Brazil’s Ronaldo but Zenit St Petersburg’s own Brazilian striker Hulk has pulled out of the event just days after complaining of “gross and ugly” racism in Russian football. Fifa have cited club commitments for the player’s withdrawal and his place on stage will be taken by former Russia captain Alexey Smertin.
Germany, Belgium, Holland, Romania, England, Wales, Portugal, Spain, Croatia.
Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Denmark, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Poland, Ukraine Scotland, Hungary, Sweden, Albania, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Greece.
Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria, Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Estonia.
Cyprus, Latvia, Armenia, Finland, Belarus, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Moldova.
Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Georgia, Malta, San Marino, Andorra.