Northern Ireland World Cup legend Gerry Armstrong has backed the fabled Spirit of '82 to carry the present day side through to a dream return to the Finals stage in Brazil 2014.
He also insisted a Windsor Park fit to match those ambitions must form the launching pad for our next World Cup bid, urging the Irish FA to now speed up the start of work on the planned £26million stadium rebuild to a 19,000 capacity.
The road to Rio begins next September, 30 years on from Armstrong's famous goalscoring heroics as Billy Bingham's team rocked host nation Spain to make the then second group phase of the top 12 teams in the tournament, before eventual elimination by France.
As in qualifying for '82, Portugal and Israel are again in Northern Ireland's Group F, with Russia, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg — a tall order but Armstrong, now 57, believes history can repeat itself.
Upbeat Armstrong said: “Of course, we'll be up against the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal but that should only inspire our boys even more.
“Back in 1981 we were up against it when we needed to beat both Portugal and Israel at home to reach the finals in Spain. We dug deep and fought like mad to get two fantastic 1-0 wins (Armstrong scoring both decisive goals).
“There was a tremendous belief in our own ability, we weren’t overawed by Portugal’s star players then and the Northern Ireland team that plays in the 2014 qualifiers should not be daunted by the challenge that lies ahead.
“The group could have been a lot worse but we’ve got a chance, — we must make sure we take it by winning our home games and starting to get wins on our travels.
“It's also an opportunity to showcase a new stadium, fit for our own home-grown heroes, never mind the likes of Ronaldo, with an atmosphere to match, making Windsor again the daunting fortress it was in my era.”
The prospect of an attractive, competitive group, featuring a crowd-pulling Ronaldo appearance at Windsor should now spur the IFA to ensure they cash in by extending Windsor's capacity from the present meagre 14,000.
Chief Executive Patrick Nelson said: “It's good to have a marquee name and Portugal have got one those in Ronaldo who is one of the best players in the world and that will certainly help us sell tickets.
“We are going to be developing Windsor Park over the next four years anyway so we have to work in our games around that, and it's going to be an exciting time.
“When you are in pot four of the seeds you expect some big teams as opponents and we have got some big teams to play, and some others with long distances to travel.”
Boss Nigel Worthington's current contract expires after the present Euro 2012 tournament and Nelson said any decision on his future would be made after the qualifying campaign.
He added: “We have five games to go and are still very much in it. We play the Faroes next and if we win that then we will be in great place for potentially taking second in this group — there is still a lot to play for in Euro 2012 before we get around to Brazil 2014.”
Worthington also refuses to be drawn on the prospect of signing a new contract but last night he was excited about the prospect of taking on a Ronaldo led Portugal and intimidating Russian outfit in the World Cup qualifiers next year.
“There’s a bit of travelling to do in this group and it will be tough but on reflection it could have been much tougher.
“We know Israel well from having played them in a friendly a couple of years back at Windsor and we all remember how difficult it was to break them down. I anticipate we’ll have to overcome similar problems in the qualifiers.
“Russia have been a fantastic team for years, always reaching major finals. They’ll certainly be tough to beat in Moscow.
“Portugal have plenty of stars — most notably Ronaldo — but we’ve played and beat big teams before.
“We need to take as many points of those three teams as possible. But what is imperative is maximum points from the home and away games against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. It is never easy until you have actually achieved that.”
The winners of the nine European groups qualify automatically for Brazil and then the eight best runners-up play off for the four places remaining.
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