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Kevin Kilbane: Football, protests and geo-politics flow downstream together in Doha

It is disappointing that England, unlike Germany and Iran, chose to duck all controversy

The World Cup has reached an inevitable crossroads. Some big nations dropped points in the opening games, with Saudi Arabia and Japan lighting up Doha with wins over Argentina and Germany, forcing the perennial heavyweights to think carefully about their next moves, on and off the pitch.

I think the German hand-to-mouth protest tells the watching world that something stinks in Fifa’s corridors of power.

It needed saying. Peoples’ heads were spinning with so much conflicting information but the European teams were muzzled, over the One Love armbands fiasco, by Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who appears to have lost control on the ground as Qatar’s Supreme Committee move the goalposts whenever they see fit.

It is also worth highlighting the Saudi political machine has cranked into gear, speaking to western media networks and floating the prospect of purchasing Manchester Utd or Liverpool, while reiterating how terrible it was that Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside their Istanbul embassy in 2018.


The Saudis want to host the 2030 World Cup and, considering they steamrollered the other Premier League clubs to purchase Newcastle United and that their national side just toppled Messi’s Argentina, who can stop them?

The running joke that this is only a football tournament and not a geopolitical event is not funny.

Where I am sitting, in a Canadian television studio over-looking Souq Waqif, the football is continually vying with protests as the Iranians became the story of the week after their stunning 2-0 defeat of a terrible, unadventurous Welsh team.

Even Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, having insisted that a female BBC journalist “asks Southgate about Afghanistan”, was in-step with his brave players and the emotional outpouring of the travelling supporters that has everyone talking about the Islamic Republic as much as the result.

No doubt about it, we are at a World Cup in the Middle East. The football, the protests, the politics flow downstream together while England evade any and all controversy. That is disappointing, especially watching the Germans and Iranians stand up for basic human rights, but I do remember at the 2002 World Cup how quickly external distractions drained the energy levels of our squad.

With Ronald Koeman replacing Louis van Gaal next year, Ireland will struggle against the Dutch in the Euro 2024 qualifiers. Koeman tends to use a 4-3-2-1 system, which is so effective when Memphis Depay initiates the high press. If Depay regains full fitness they will go deep into December.

Either way, we will struggle against them next year in Dublin and Amsterdam.

France, who are first up for Ireland next March, have lost Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Karim Benzema, Christopher Nkunku and now Lucas Hernandez, yet they can still retain the World Cup. I loved watching Ousmane Dembélé against Australia, and observing how he runs off the ball, I think he will become one of the stars of Qatar 2022. Olivier Giroud, the old man up front, is a battering ram, playing as a direct number nine, which allows the best player on the planet to roam off the left. Kylian Mbappé looks lethal.

For the first time since my international retirement in 2011, I missed Ireland’s friendly window, against Norway and Malta. I heard it was grim. Stephen Kenny is zipping around Doha over the next few days, to see the French and Dutch, but scouting is not his most pressing issue, it’s getting the many players he has kept faith in to pay their dues. The Saudis and Japanese show Ireland what is possible without superstars but one or two will eventually need to be unearthed.

By age 10 I knew that I wanted to score a belter at Lansdowne Road and eventually live out my childhood dream at the 2002 World Cup.

You might have heard my rant on Off the Ball a few years back when Declan Rice did a U-turn, having won three caps for Ireland in 2018. Young, gifted and Irish (or so we believed), Rice decided his career was better served in an England shirt.

He was not wrong. The West Ham midfielder had the path laid out by another brilliant Irish under-21 named Jack Grealish, who took leave of the FAI system in 2015, and threw his lot in with England.

I’m English born to an Irish family but considering what we now know about John Delaney’s FAI, would you blame them?

I would still, a little, but last night Rice and Grealish represented England at the World Cup. Hand on heart, I could never bring myself to sing God Save the King or Queen.

I had the best of both worlds but between them, Rice and Grealish have a market value of £200 million and that’s because they are shining at successive major tournaments. The English brand has never been so strong.

Does anyone in Ireland believe we will qualify for Euro 2024 from a group containing France, the Dutch and Greece?

Josh Cullen has been a consistent performer under Kenny but too many others have failed to step up. I understand the need for patience but the manager’s most recent programme notes need to be supported by results: “We have built a new Irish team over the past two years with a high emphasis on technique and skill, where every player is comfortable in possession in every area of the pitch ... and we have shown the capacity to score goals.”

The Irish brand will only grow by ensuring the next versions of Grealish and Rice reject England. Don’t worry, the next Kevin Kilbane and Josh Cullen will be scouted and capped, but this World Cup keeps showing us that a pair of Champions League players, like Canadian duo Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich and Stephen Eustáquio at Porto, are essential if bumping into Irish people around the Souq is to be the norm at the 2030 World Cup in Riyadh.

Kevin Kilbane

Kevin Kilbane

Kevin Kilbane is a former professional footballer and an Irish Times contributor.