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World Cup 2018: Have boots, will travel an incredibly long distance

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 27/07/2015

Journey men: Michael O'Neill
Journey men: Michael O'Neill
Kyle Lafferty

Get the passports out and stock up on the travel guides - Northern Ireland's path to the 2018 World Cup will take their loyal fans on a 12,500-mile trek across Europe.

From Berlin to Baku, via Prague, Oslo and the tiny principality of San Marino, the road to Russia promises to be an epic journey.

The draw for the qualifying stages took place at the weekend, handing Michael O'Neill's side a tough mission.

Striker Kyle Lafferty and his team-mates will face world champions Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

And with only the group winners guaranteed a place in the finals, Northern Ireland have it all to do.

The draw will also see fans clocking up the air miles - the journey to Baku alone involves a 5,400-mile round trip.

In total, any Northern Ireland fan making all five away games will travel almost 12,500 miles.

Simon Calder, the travel editor of The Independent newspaper, said the draw was a mixed bag for fans.

"The bargain destination is the Czech Republic with its beautiful capital city of Prague," he said.

"Germany is the great undiscovered destination of Europe. It's a really civilised, good value country.

"Norway is beautiful, wonderful but painfully expensive, while San Marino will be reasonably easy to reach through one of the northern Italian airports.

"Azerbaijan - well, good luck. You're going into the wild east of the former Soviet Union.

"It's quite a lively, edgy place and, of all the possible venues, it is the one I'd be least inclined to go to, which is probably just as well as it will be by far the most expensive of the countries to reach."

In terms of qualifying itself, Northern Ireland manager O'Neill admits it will be tough - but not impossible.

"It's a decent draw for us," said O'Neill.

"Germany are the world champions and will of course be expected to finish first, but if we can take our form from the Euros into the qualifiers we'll certainly give the Czech Republic and Norway a run for second place and a play-off spot."

The fixtures were confirmed yesterday and will again see Northern Ireland play a home match on a Sunday.

That will be against Norway on March 26, 2017.

The standout game - Northern Ireland v Germany - is the penultimate match of the qualifying campaign and takes place on October 5, 2017.

Before that, O'Neill's side open with an away game against the Czechs on September 4, 2016.

They finish with a trip to Norway on October 8 2017. Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson says Northern Ireland are relishing the challenge of facing the world champions.

"Any group with Germany in it is going to be difficult, but it's going to be exciting," he said.

Before the 2018 qualifiers, the green and white army could also have to factor in a visit to France next summer.

Northern Ireland are second in their European Championship qualifying group and have a great chance of making it to the finals.

Belfast Telegraph

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