FOOTBALL is sure to take a back seat initially at Saturday’s draw wherein European countries will learn their group opponents for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Discredited, and supposedly, departing FIFA president Sepp Blatter has stated his intention not only to appear at the jamboree in St Petersburg, but to hobnob with Russian president and notable ally Vladimir Putin. With that political posturing on the agenda, balls being plucked from oversized goldfish bowls will hardly provide the most newsworthy element next weekend.
Yet, when the Blatter baiting and Putin prodding subsides, what will matter to the nations in awkward attendance will be the prospects for their national teams participating in the first World Cup hosted in eastern Europe three years from now. The decision to award Russia the 2018 final may have been cloaked in corruption claims. Equally, the tournament in a wider sense may now have been besmirched by the endemic nature of the brown envelope culture among top-ranking officials of the world governing body. Yet, all of the 52 teams bidding for the 13 final places available to UEFA members will be gagging to play their part in a great Russian propaganda tool come 2018.
The format of the sectional split, in itself, tells just how much money talks at the highest level of the game. The 52 teams, whose FIFA ranking has resulted in them being split into six different pots, will be divided up into seven groups of six teams and two groups of five teams. Owing to the fact they hail from the largest television markets, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands will feature in six team groups. The only other element of the draw that is fixed is that, as a consequence of delicate political relations between the pair, Armenia and Azerbaijan will not be drawn in the same section.
Scotland, as a pot three nation, could face the long journeying to one of these, frankly Western Asian, pot four sides. What is guaranteed to prove of greater concern for Gordon Strachan’s side is the identity of their pot one and pot two rivals. If the draw is unkind to Scotland, they could find themselves grouped with Spain, Italy, Turkey, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In this scenario, prospects would be rendered remote even for earning a second place that would provide entry to the play-offs; the eight best second group runners’ up facing off in four ties to decide the teams that will join the section winners in Russia.
Of course, were Scotland to avoid the TV-beloved nations, they could end up in a group with Wales – a surprise pot one side – Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Moldova. Although Wales may have inflicted dispiriting defeats on Scotland in the Euro 2014 qualifiers and stepped up their level since, a Scotland revitalised under Strachan would unquestionably bite your hand off if offered these rivals to attempt to return to the World Cup finals for the first time in 20 years.
That said, sometimes the cut-throat nature of a smaller group that necessitates playing only eight games, as opposed to 10, isn’t perceived as preferable. It can disrupt rhythm to have to fill international dates with friendlies when group rivals are involved in competitive action.
Gone are the days when SFA officials would have sleepless nights in the lead-up to such draws. In previous generations dates and orders for fixtures were settled by officials knocking their heads together in darkened rooms. Such horse-trading has been consigned to the past with a computer spitting out the full schedule within 24 hours of the groups being settled.
Gone, too, are the days when international football was a Wednesday-Saturday preoccupation. The “international week” concept that is being piloted in the current Euro 2016 qualifiers is here to stay. It allows games between the highest profile nations to be spread out in the international windows that now run from Thursday to a Tuesday. Any double headers to be played during these international fortnights will once again mean teams playing Thursday-Sunday, Friday-Monday or Saturday-Tuesday.
With kick-off times set at early evening or late evening, depending on whether fixtures are weekend or midweek, it would it seem that never again will Hampden play host to a Saturday 3pm competitive international. The Tartan Army will worry little about that providing the home of Scottish football once more serves up an encounter that opens the door to playing in a World Cup finals.