Rocky road to Russia for Ireland

It was interesting this weekend to read US and English media reaction to the World Cup draw. The general US anti-Russian rhetoric is grand, this is what they need.

A genuine enemy at the gates who will keep the old fear factor bubbling while their minions in the Middle East keep the defence industry busy with attacks on US and US-backed troops in Iraq.

 

Backing the hardline headbangers in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc is grand, the Qatari’s and Saudi’s foot the bill in order to push their own quasi-religious agendas. No questions asked, all is good in the world. Leave the actual news coverage to Jon Stewart, he’s gone soon anyway.

The English media was a little more base. Not for them the great geopolitical game, at least not with any conviction. For them it was a peevish attack on the country that “stole” the World Cup from them. If it were up to them they’d be granted the World Cup in perpetuity and more! The game should come home and maybe they’ll win another World cup this century.

When the whole FIFA corruption scandal erupted recently it was hilarious to read and listen to the outrage from the home of football. Yet the irony in the situation was lost on them it seemed.

Two of the biggest financial washing machines in the World – City of London and English football – are seemingly okay because it’s Johnny Foreigner who does the dastardly deeds, not scruffs or toffs from the septic isle! Still, it made for fun watching the depths to which they will drop to try prove their superiority on all things football.

Back to the football. Ireland’s draw was an excellent result all told. From bottom up, Moldova we’ll meet for the first time and they are no pushovers, however Ireland should get six points.

Moldovan football has produced some good players though their FA does not encourage local players enough. There are a number of very good players in Russia and Romania who are eligible for the national side, though have not been approached or refused approaches. Nobody trusts the FA.

October 2016’s trip to the former USSR republic will be a treat for anyone, they have a reputation (in Russia) of being a bit crazy, but hardworking. Moldova produces good quality wine, is a stunning country and the capital, Kishinev, is quite beautiful.

It has its problems with poverty, crime and the frozen war with Transdnestria, though for a football trip, it will be fun.

Georgia, they’re fast becoming our Poland. Anyone who has been to Georgia will attest to the friendliness, warmth and decency in the country. Georgians have a reputation in Russia of liking the drink and being a bit mad, but the capital Tbilisi is a great place to visit and will be in ideal weather in September 2017.

Again we should be looking at six points from these matches. Georgian’s top sport is wrestling, followed by rugby and football drops to third or fourth place depending on which journo you speak with.

I was told by a colleague that Georgia are “Ireland of the Caucasus”, football is not high on the list of priorities. Talented Georgian players are plentiful, though putting to together for a campaign is tough.

Serbia, oh how I smiled with this draw. Again a former foe and a country which has a history of producing International class and insane footballers. For an away trip Serbia is a dream. The people are friendly, funny and love a drink. Serbia September 2016 will be a treat!

When I lived in Croatia I was usually picked for business trips to Serbia (for obvious reasons) and every time was an adventure. Football there is in a constant state of collapse and turmoil.

Club finances would not be too great and while there is a lot of money (especially Russian and Chinese) in the country, clubs struggle. Nabbing two or three points from the clashes with Serbia will be a must. They are a side who can blow hot and cold, but Ireland have enough to at least keep them honest.

 

Austria in November 2016, we owe them one, big time. Anyone of a certain age will remember the stars of the 90s (Toni Polster et al) not being easy to beat and while Austria’s heyday was pre-WWII and shortly after the war, they have benefited from the 2nd generation of immigration.

Sons of ex-Yugoslavs, Africans and Turks all have grown up to create a new Golden Age for Austrian football. Topping their Euro 2016 qualification group and taking care of Russia twice, they are a decent side will enjoy only their second European Championships ever next year in France.

Austria could be Ireland in 10 years, if we can manage to keep our young players educated at home instead of flogging them to failing UK academies. A point from two matches with Austria will represent a success.

As for the trip, Austria is great. Vienna is a living museum and there is a lot of craic to be had of an evening. And it’s cheap!

Wales, oh good lord what did they do to deserve this? They are having a great time of it with a top class football like Gareth Bale, a kind of modern Ryan Giggs with better hair and minus the family distractions. Yet it will be with fear that they’ll come to the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland have not always been great against Wales, I remember standing in the RDS watching a decent Jack Charlton side struggle to even match them at times and before that (in his first Irish game) seeing Ireland unable to to beat what was a poor Welsh outfit.

Wales is a great trip, unless it’s to a holiday camp, and the country do sports better than most. Three points from our meetings will have Ireland set nicely for second place, though it will be tight. The October 9 fixture next year will probably be a real decider with the home game with Moldova coming just three days before. A point in Cardiff will get Ireland over the line.

The road to Russia is rocky, winding its way through Eastern Europe and into the ex-USSR, though there is now a major chance that Ireland will be in Russia in 2018. A realistic haul of 18 points should see Ireland settle in second place, once the others beat one another.

Of course it is optimistic, even rose tinted, though if Ireland cannot expect to battle for 2nd place in a group like this then we need to quit football altogether.

A question over who will lead Ireland needs to be resolved and signing up Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane to the end of the World Cup will give stability and chance to do an Obama – get things done. Roll on Russia!

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist and consultant, working with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports FM in Moscow, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018.

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