The FAI is confident of a 51,000 sell-out for the visit of Belgium on Saturday, March 26 despite Roberto Martinez selecting a shadow squad for the friendly.
With Ireland missing out on the World Cup playoffs in March, a major name was required to attract punters.
Ireland, ranked 47 in the world, will also host Lithuania, situated 136 in Fifa’s standings, three days later on March 29 as part of a double-header.
Ticket details have yet to be announced but the FAI will likely bring a yearly bundle offering to the market that includes another home friendly in November.
England’s unwillingness to play abroad during the next window eliminated them from the equation for an occasion to mark the FAI’s Centenary while Italy’s availability vanished once in November they were relegated to the play-offs upon drawing with Northern Ireland.
Belgium, as the top-ranked nation in the world, were always a back-up option but the fact Martinez earmarked the spring gathering for less experienced players threatened to affect their appeal.
The former Everton manager had been clear that the gradual build-up to the World Cup in November, coupled with the congested time of year at club level, meant players with over 50 caps would be excused.
That excludes a raft of their golden generation that earned them successive World Cup bronze medals, including Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Dries Martens (Napoli) and Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid).
Among the candidates that fit the criteria are Leicester City’s midfield dynamo Youri Tielemans, Thorgan Hazard of Borussia Dortmund, Michy Batshuayi (Besiktas), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge) and Premier League striking trio Leandro Trossard (Brighton), Divock Origi (Liverpool) and Leander Dendoncker (Wolves).
“March will be an opportunity to develop players, not for 2022 but for 2026,” Martinez told La Tribune.
“This is a project we have been working on for a long time. We will leave with players who could reach their best level for 2026. Players born between 1997 and 2008. It’s important to see these players in a scheme where they will be given a big role. It’s different from seeing a young player sitting next to a player who has 100 caps.”
Martinez cited the benefits accrued from the 2020 friendlies against Ivory Coast and Switzerland as justification for choosing this strategy.
“We saw certain players for the first time,” he affirmed. “Alexis Saelemaekers, Zinho Vanheusden, Hans Vanaken and Leander Dendoncker. They had to take on leadership roles and it’s important to give them the keys to the team.”
“In June and September, we will have six Nations League games against big teams from Europe: Netherlands, Poland and Wales.
“And in these six games, it will be a good opportunity to mix those who have ‘performed’ in March with those who have already proven everything at the Devils. That’s when we will finalise the squad for Qatar 2022.”
Belgium’s visit will be 16th meeting of the countries, the last of which was at Euro 2016. Lukaku’s brace cemented a 3-0 group stage hammering in the heat of Bordeaux.
Their ties stretch back to almost a century, for Belgium were only the second team to face Ireland — after Italy — in 1928. That was the first of three duels in a row, all Ireland wins, before they played out a memorable 4-4 draw in a 1934 World Cup qualifier. Paddy Moore scored all four goals for Ireland at a packed Dalymount Park.
For Ireland and Stephen Kenny, the friendlies are the last warm-ups before their own Uefa Nations League series begins in June.
Like the Red Devils, Ireland have a quadruple header, starting with Ukraine at Aviva Stadium (Saturday, June 4), away to Armenia (Tuesday, June 7) Scotland at home (Saturday, June 11) and finally Ukraine away on Tuesday, June 14.
Encroachment by Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border has ignited concerns about the country’s ability to safely stage fixtures but it appears Ireland’s game will be held in Lviv on the western side of the country.
Should that be confirmed, it could improve access for Irish fans thinking of travelling. Ryanair fly twice weekly to Rzeszow close to the Ukrainian border, while supporters with time on their hands could use Krakow as their direct destination. The 35,000-seater Lviv Arena is a three-hour road trip away from the popular Polish city.