World Cup Draw: Northern Ireland set for Portugal showdown
The last time Portugal were in Belfast in November 2005, their Brazilian World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari stormed out of Windsor Park in a huff.
Furious at the manner in which his star-studded Portuguese outfit, that included a 20-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, had been treated, he accused the Northern Ireland players of being “over competitive” in a friendly.
Clogging tactics were even suggested by the former Brazil chief, who later went on to manage Chelsea.
The Northern Ireland players could only smile at Scolari’s irritation.
Their gameplan, just like the magnificent victory over England two months prior to this game, had worked a treat.
Northern Ireland kept up a frenetic tempo from kick-off, refused to allow the Portuguese more than a second on the ball and after taking one of their many chances — a Warren Feeney headed goal— they came away with a creditable 1-1 draw.
Portugal haven’t been back since but, over the next two years, with Real Madrid star Ronaldo still playing a pivotal role, they must make at least one more visit to Windsor Park after being drawn out in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night as the top seeds in Northern Ireland’s Group F for the 2014 World Cup qualifying.
This will certainly not worry the Northern Ireland players who have kept the formula for unsettling the Portuguese.
It’s the other teams in the group, with the exception of Luxembourg, that cause most concern for qualification.
Russia, Israel and Azerbaijan will be severe tests both home and away. Indeed the long journeys to all three countries could play a huge role in the outcome of these games.
But Rangers midfielder Steven Davis, who may even be captain for these games should Aaron Hughes stand down at the end of the Euro 2012 qualifiers in October, insists Northern Ireland have the ability to find a way of overcoming any obstacles that are placed in their way.
The Cullybackey lad says: “We're not foolish — Ronaldo can win any game on his own. But after our draw with them a few years back that just goes to show we can compete with these sides.
“We’ll come up against world-class players in Ronaldo and Russia’s Andrei Arshavin however that’s exactly what you want when you play international football.
“This draw gives us a chance and we’ve got to believe. Belief is everything in the camp.
“We now need to make sure that we turn Windsor Park into a fortress again — if we can do that, anything is possible.
“If we can pick up points early, especially at home, I would be very hopeful and then gain some points in the away matches against Portugal, Russia and Israel. There’s no reason why we can’t do that if we have our best team out. We have made a habit of frustrating big teams and that can continue.
“Obviously, victory, home and away, over Azerbaijan and Luxembourg is essential.”
Davis wasn’t even born when Northern Ireland stunned the world at Spain ‘82. But one of the heroes from that World Cup ad
venture, Gerry Armstrong, has told today’s stars to use the “Spirit of ‘82” as inspiration if they are to achieve their dream of making it to the finals in Brazil.
From the opening game it seemed as though the footballing gods smiled on Northern Ireland.
Floodlight failure helped earn a draw out in Israel while Terry Cochrane chasing a lost cause against Portugal in May 1981 set up Armstrong for the winner.
The Irish Cup final had even been postponed the Saturday before because this game was so crucial.
In November that year 40,000 fans packed into Windsor Park to see Armstrong again net the winner in the vital final qualifier against Israel that sealed our passage to Spain.
“It should be deja vu time for the current crop of players,” says Armstrong. “These teams are tough and we know all about the class of Ronaldo but we should remember we’ve overcome these countries before and qualified. If I was a player I’d be excited by the challenge that lies ahead.
“Portugal and Russia will be expected to take the top two spots in the group but I think we can have a major say and be the shock team that reaches Brazil.”
However, before anyone can turn their attentions to the World Cup games, thoughts should solely be on the five remaining games in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which start up again next week against the Faroe Islands.
Despite lying in fifth place in Group Three, due to games in hand, Nigel Worthington’s men still have an outside chance of securing second spot and a Play-off game for Poland and Ukraine next year. Therefore, it is possible we could meet Portugal and Ronaldo sooner than the World Cup qualifiers.
But going on previous experiences, they’ll hardly be too happy to see us.