IN THE midst of a FIFA maelstrom, it’s a chance to test players ahead of key tie with the Republic, reckons Moira Gordon
BY THE time the Euro 2016 match with the Republic of Ireland comes around in 13 days’ time, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan will be fully focused on European matters and hoping everyone else is too. But with so much of the current attention on FIFA and world football issues, he knows the coming week could become a bit of a circus.
The arrest of several senior FIFA officials by US anti-corruption forces looking into bribery, money laundering, racketeering and kickbacks has also cast a spotlight on Scotland’s forthcoming opponents, Qatar, with the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to the Gulf state understood to form a significant part of the investigators’ case.
Qatar was already a contentious choice for Friday’s friendly match at Easter Road, given the country’s poor human rights record and the shocking death toll of migrants working on the new stadiums and infrastructure for 2022. The furore stirred up ahead of the FIFA congress, which has added credence to the long-held belief of corruption within the organisation, has exacerbated matters.
“That’s not the fault of the players or the coaching staff,” said Strachan. “I’m actually looking forward to this game as it’s new faces and we can meet new friends. It’s a huge, complicated business.”
While politicians and punters alike are keen to have their say, Strachan is reticent about being drawn into the latest debate. There have been calls for individual nations to ultimately boycott the World Cup in seven years’ time but he said he preferred to keep his powder dry until everything becomes a bit clearer.
If you want to see good players then you can’t be asking them to play all year round
“We will have to wait to see how this all pans out,” said Strachan. “It would be easy for us to make comments now and that might be unwise. But I’ve heard things this week that I’ve been saying for a wee while. But we’ll leave that just now. That will unfold itself.
“I do think, though, that it’s a turning point for world football one way or another. And hopefully a turning point for the good.”
The national boss is someone who knows a thing or two about turning things around. While the Republic of Ireland renew old battles with well-known foes England, and then a closed-doors game with Northern Ireland, the Qatar game has a freshness to it which is in keeping with Strachan’s reign.
But it also serves a useful purpose. The timing of the fixture does not please Strachan, who is well aware that the qualifier stretches out an already lengthy season for his players. Given the disparity in the Scotland ranks, with some players short of match time, having wrapped up their domestic campaigns a month ago, and others weary after concluding a long season, the plan is to use the match with Qatar to address those issues, while also building on the team spirit ahead of the trip across the Irish Sea.
“I think the players’ bodies need a rest,” said Strachan, when quizzed about the post-season fixture date. “Funnily enough I was watching Sevilla the other night and their players have played 60 games this year. It is not so much playing the games, it is when they play them. I think players need a break more mentally than physically sometimes, and that can be a problem to a player. Switch off for a while and start again. It is not so bad if you are a top, top player playing Champions League and meaningful games through the season. Unfortunately we are not like that and it can be a bit of a problem.
“I would like, somewhere down the line, for there to be a winter break where these boys can get a rest and recover from injuries. Or have it in the summer but pick one. Don’t have them playing all the way through. There is a point where you can do damage and if you want to see good players then you can’t be asking them to play all year round.
“But the Republic are in the same boat as us. I am sure Martin [O’Neill, the Republic manager] would say the same: that it would be nice for the players to have a rest. But on the other hand if you want to be a top, top player you have to accept you might have to play with only a three-week break in the year.”
Shaun Maloney’s goal gave Scotland victory over Republic of Ireland in the first head-to-head and leaves them two points clear of O’Neill’s men, sitting level on points with Germany and just one point behind group leaders Poland. Another victory, this time in Dublin, on 13 June, would be a massive boost to Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 – their first major championships since the 1998 World Cup.
That lure of a major championships is proving a powerful incentive and the feelgood mood means that Strachan has been blighted by fewer call-offs than would be historically expected at this time of year for a friendly against the likes of Qatar. He revealed he won’t have the injured defender Grant Hanley but he has faith in the alternatives and says he is blessed with real strength in depth in other areas.
“[Against Qatar], the thing is to get them fit. We know what systems we are going to play [in the Euro qualifier], we know how we like to play, we know how Ireland can play but the most important thing is we get players up to speed, to get them fit.
“There’s the ones who need games, the ones who maybe don’t need as much, we will have to deal with that. Once we get the initial fitness test on Tuesday we will know who are the ones who need more of a game than anyone else. It is really down to that.
“You might see players playing out of position but they will be playing out of position so they get a game. It will be a nice wee test, it will be something different.”