Michael O'Neill will give rising Northern Ireland stars big chance to shine on tour
Michael O'Neill will today name his Northern Ireland squad for the end-of-season tour of Central America with a strong emphasis on the next generation.
O'Neill is expected to dip into the Under-21 panel, offering rising stars the chance to show they can step up for the senior side.
Former Linfield hero and now QPR ace Paul Smyth netted on his senior Northern Ireland debut, scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over World Cup-bound South Korea in the Windsor Park friendly in March, and O'Neill is hoping more fresh faces can showcase their talent on the tour.
Crusaders ace Gavin Whyte must be a strong contender to make the cut after impressing for the Under-21s and lighting up the Danske Bank Premiership with the Shore Road side.
The 22-year-old, who lifted the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year gongs, looks set to move to the full-time game this summer with League Two side Crawley Town the first club to make an offer.
Whyte impressed in the Under-21 games against Spain and Iceland but it is his goalscoring form in the Premiership that has alerted cross-channel clubs and caught O'Neill's eye.
Everton striker Shayne Lavery and Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson could also be included in O'Neill's youthful squad.
Northern Ireland will take on Panama in Panama City on Tuesday, May 29, before facing Costa Rica on Sunday, June 3 in San Jose. O'Neill suggested he would place faith in his rising stars by saying: "Two years ago we went to Uruguay and Chile with a relatively inexperienced team.
"This year we have a stronger squad but there will be an opportunity to introduce more exciting young players."
There is further good news for O'Neill after Fifa confirmed they will be formally discussing expanding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 to 48 teams at their pre-Russia 2018 congress on June 13 in Moscow.
Fifa's council unanimously approved a plan to add 16 more teams to the World Cup from 2026 onwards in January 2017 but the federation's president Gianni Infantino is keen to bring that expansion forward.
Infantino attended a meeting of the South American confederation CONMEBOL in Buenos Aires last month, when the idea to expand Qatar 2022 first emerged. Speaking to reporters at that meeting, Infantino described the South American proposal as "very interesting" and worthy of serious study, and restated his commitment to enlarging the World Cup "for the development of football".
Northern Ireland came agonisingly close to making it to this summer's finals in Russia but were left cursing a controversial penalty decision in the play-off loss to Switzerland.
In another international football development that O'Neill will have noted, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) has rejected Munir El Haddadi's appeal against Fifa's ruling that prevented him from playing for Morocco. The forward, who is on loan at Alaves from Barcelona, had requested to switch national allegiance from Spain.
Fifa rules bar players from changing national teams once they have played a competitive international, even if they hold dual nationality.
The 22-year-old made a single appearance for Spain, in a European Championship qualifier against Macedonia in September 2014, when he came on as a substitute and played less than 15 minutes.
Players born in Northern Ireland can choose to play for the Republic but O'Neill has expressed concerns over how the Football Association of Ireland pursue players.
On El Haddadi's appeal, Gary McAllister, spokesperson for the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs, commented on Twitter: "This is an important ruling. Further dilution of the eligibility rules would be an absolute nonsense."
El Haddadi, who made his appeal jointly with the Moroccan Football Federation, had asked for a fast-track ruling in the hope of playing for the North Africans at the World Cup.