Sometimes you just have to laugh. Uefa’s emcee for the day, Giorgio Marchetti, observed when France were drawn into Group B with the Netherlands that it was already shaping up as a tough group for everybody else. You immediately thought, this sounds like a job for Stephen Kenny...
Some draws created an audible stir in the audience – such as when England were drawn to face Italy in Group C. When Jurgen Klinsmann drew Republic of Ireland as the third team in Group B, there was no reaction. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle. The coaching teams from the Netherlands and France at least maintained a respectful silence at what they must have considered a handy third seed to draw. From their point of view, Ireland are just meat in the room – and the right kind of meat.
No doubt the Netherlands felt the same way nearly 23 years ago when they were drawn along with Portugal and Ireland in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. Ireland as third seeds did not seem much threat to either of the top two, who had been losing semi-finalists in Euro 2000. That was the last time Ireland defied their seeding: Portugal went to the World Cup, Ireland qualified via the playoffs, and the Netherlands watched on TV.
Of course, that was when Ireland had Roy Keane, a player who impressed Louis van Gaal enough in the process of knocking out his Dutch team at Lansdowne Road to pick up one of van Gaal’s votes for that year’s World Player of the Year award. (Van Gaal was the only voter to put Keane in his top three that year, while Keane’s junior team-mate at Manchester United, David Beckham, finished a close second to Luis Figo in the overall poll, in case you needed reminding that awards mean nothing).
The Netherlands, again led by van Gaal in his third stint as national coach, currently look like one of the top teams in Europe. They swept through a World Cup qualifying group where the main rivals were Turkey and Norway, and Memphis Depay’s 12 goals made him the top scorer in the European qualifiers alongside Harry Kane. (Erling Haaland could only manage five in that group). Then they won five out of six against Belgium, Poland and Wales to top their Nations League A group, with Depay again top scorer in the section. All this means that the last competitive defeat van Gaal has suffered as coach of the Dutch team came at Lansdowne Road, 21 years ago.
France have more good players than the Netherlands, and less of an idea how best to fit them together. While the Dutch have been playing a settled 3-4-1-2, Didier Deschamps set his team up in four different formations in six Nations League A games, which saw them lose twice to Denmark and once to Croatia, and finally stay up thanks to a lone victory against Austria.
The French team that was so hard to beat at Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 was built on the midfield axis of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, but the partnership has fallen victim to accumulated physical wear and tear. Aurelien Tchouameni played the most minutes of all 34 French players who appeared in the Nations League and he has established himself as the number one midfield player, but Deschamps has tried out Eduardo Camavinga, Matteo Guendouzi, Adrien Rabiot and Youssouf Fofana alongside him and none has yet done enough to prove they should stay in the team. Still, France are auditioning players from Real Madrid, Marseille, Juventus and Monaco, while all Ireland’s midfielders are playing in the Championship.
Then there is Greece, a team on a similar level to Ireland, though with a better history. Winning Euro 2004 made Greece a permanent symbol of what can be achieved by smaller teams when they manage to to get everything right. In this group, Greece are the team Ireland will have to beat for Kenny to still be the coach for the 2026 World Cup qualifiers.
We know the Qatar World Cup will change a lot. Van Gaal, who revealed earlier this year that he had been undergoing successful radiation treatment for prostate cancer, will step down after the tournament. Deschamps, who was not universally popular in France even while his team was winning the World Cup, will probably also leave. They will be joined by some of their senior players, so both of the top seeds will be in a transitional phase. The best thing about Ireland’s schedule is that the first game is against France at home. You think back to September 1998, when Croatia came to Dublin two months after finishing third at the 1998 World Cup and were caught cold by two goals in the first quarter-hour.
The specific composition of this group, though, reminds you of an earlier set of qualifiers. The campaign to qualify for the 1982 World Cup would go down as one of Ireland’s all-time heroic failures. Ireland were fourth seeds in a group that also included France, captained by the best player of the early 1980s, Michel Platini; the Netherlands, who had been runners-up in the previous two World Cups; and Belgium, who had been runners-up at Euro 1980. They ended up finishing third, just one point behind Belgium and level with France, who squeezed them out on goal difference.
Yesterday in Frankfurt, Kenny described the forthcoming big matches as “career-defining”, and that is truer for him than it is for his players. The lingering memory from the 1982 campaign was the performance of Portuguese referee Raul Nazare in the game away to Belgium, which Ireland lost 1-0 after Frank Stapleton had a goal ruled out for no apparent reason. There is a famous photograph of Ireland manager Eoin Hand staring accusingly at Nazare, who is caught casting an awkward glance at the camera. “You’re a disgrace, you’ve been paid off,” would be Hand’s most famous quote from his time in the Ireland job, encapsulating the hard-luck story of his era. Nobody knows better than Hand that in football, you don’t always get what you deserve.