The Convention Centre looked well and there were blue skies outside to greet the arrival of the football world to yesterday’s draw for the Euro 2020 Championship Qualifiers.
It’s always the outcome of who plays who and where that is most important but the staging of the draw was an important step for Ireland in terms of our growing credibility as a host or potential host of major sporting events.
Holding the draw on a Sunday morning was a neat solution to avoid having to cause major traffic disruption across the city and while UEFA were responsible for the mechanics of the draw and the programme it was a good reflection on us that everything went so smoothly.
Whether the Irish FA in Belfast will have a warm memory of the event is debatable though with the ironic twist of the conditions of the draw and the avoidance of having three of the twelve host nations in any one group meaning that they ended up with the Netherlands and Germany, the proverbial Group of Death.
That the Republic of Ireland should have been drawn by Nuno Gomes to face that trial but then be moved along to the next group as both Amsterdam and Munich are hosts alongside Dublin meant an exhalation of breath from Mick McCarthy and the fans that was only matched by the gasp of astonishment when the next name out of the pot from the Portuguese former player should be Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland.
Still, everyone has to be optimistic at the start of a tournament and Germany are in poor form at present.
The qualification process for 2020 also holds out the prospect of playoffs for the teams in each Nations League Group that finished highest of those that do not qualify through the group phase.
It means that Northern Ireland will be cheering on Bosnia and Herzegovina and Austria in their respective groups. If they both qualify and Northern Ireland don’t then they will have one final shot in March of next year.
The same applies to the Republic of Ireland but if we don’t manage to edge out Switzerland or Denmark the likelihood is that Denmark will have qualified which would leave us needing Wales to finish as one of the top two from a group including Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan.
The campaign runs over a tightened period of eight months with the first game for Ireland against Gibraltar away in March, and the last a potential winner takes the prize showdown with Denmark at the Aviva Stadium on November 18th.
The four home games will be that game preceded by the visits of Georgia on Tuesday, March 26th; Gibraltar on Monday, June 10th; and Switzerland on Thursday, September 5th. All games are scheduled for kickoffs at 19:45.
Now we know what’s before the two Irish teams we can look forward to the renewed excitement of a fresh qualification series. Both sides made it to France in 2016. Let’s hope for a repeat of that to make the summer of 2020 one to remember.
The National Printworks at Dublion Castle will host an exhibition of Irish Football history between now and next Sunday, December 9th, before it goes on a national tour ahead of the Euro 2020 Finals.
Image Credit: Ryan Byrne. Inpho.ie