The Republic of Ireland looks set for a dramatic late call-up to the Fifa World Cup finals in Brazil after France's participation in the tournament was thrown into doubt this morning.
The FAI is understood to have been told to prepare for a possible shock inclusion at the expense of the French.
High-level sources in Fifa, the game’s governing body, say there is increasing concern at the fall-out from French striker Nicolas Anelka’s recent ban for an allegedly anti-Semitic “quenelle” gesture, and the impact it may have on a tournament which organisers are determined will pass off without controversy.
Although Anelka is not currently in the French squad, he has strong support from former team-mates, who do not condone the “quenelle” but believe he has been made a scapegoat by football authorities. Their dissatisfaction is a potential PR disaster for Fifa in Brazil, which has the world’s ninth-largest Jewish population.
There are “fresh memories”, said a Fifa source, both of Zinedine Zidane’s sending-off in the 2006 World Cup final against Italy, and of Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in the play-off for the 2010 World Cup, which helped deny Ireland a place at the tournament. Fifa was determined, said the source, not to let France “mess things up again”.
Although Ireland did not make the recent World Cup play-offs, the injustice suffered at Stade de France in 2009 is believed to be central to Fifa's thinking should France need to be replaced. There is genuine embarrassment in Geneva at how that incident was handled, as well as respect for the "artistic" imagination of John Delaney, chief executive of the FAI, who suggested Ireland might become the 33rd team at the 2010 World Cup.
A senior Fifa official in Sao Paulo, Falip Orol, insisted there were no moves afoot to change the tournament lineup. However, other sources said Fifa executives were "quietly excited" at the idea of Roy Keane, Ireland's assistant manager, getting another chance to appear at a World Cup after Saipan.
The FAI – including manager Martin O’Neill and Keane – has been alerted to the possibility of a late inclusion, and Keane is understood to have personally overseen the purchase of extra training balls and bibs for such an eventuality.
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