Belfast Telegraph

Odds against Uefa's small nations: O'Neill


By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill has claimed that the World Cup qualification system is unfair on European teams and believes that smaller countries in the continent such as Northern Ireland face a 'huge' challenge to make the finals.

O'Neill believes it is easier for nations from other Fifa confederations to qualify and points to the CONCACAF region as an example. The Northern Ireland boss would like Fifa to assess the situation for future tournaments.

Currently, including hosts Russia, 14 sides from Europe (Uefa region) will take part in next year's World Cup. The top teams in the nine groups qualify automatically with the best eight runners-up competing in play-offs.

With World champions Germany expected to top the Group C table, Northern Ireland's route would be through the play-offs.

Five nations from CAF (African region) will go to the finals, there will be four or five from AFC (Asian region), three or four from the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean), four or five from CONMEBOL (South America) and zero or one from OCF (Oceania region).

A country from AFC will meet a CONCACAF nation and a team from CONMEBOL play one from OCF in play-offs next month to determine the exact numbers.

O'Neill believes the system is lopsided against Europe, which has greater strength in depth.

He said: "Northern Ireland went into the World Cup in 1982 and 1986 by finishing second in their groups. In 1982 we were second in a group of four. We are now second in a group of six and could face a play-off against a top European nation.

"It's slightly unfair in Europe. Look at CONCACAF, the team that finishes third in Mexico and America's group automatically goes to the finals and the team that finishes fourth gets a play-off.

"The challenge for the smaller European nations to get there (to the World Cup finals) is huge.

"We've had a magnificent campaign, have 19 points from eight games and seven clean sheets and have only been defeated by Germany. There is nothing more we could have had and we have more football to play."

That starts with a mouthwatering clash at home to Germany on Thursday before the qualifiers end with a game in Norway on Sunday.

Windsor Park will be packed for the visit of Joachim Low's superstars and there is hope mixed in with some belief among the Green and White Army that O'Neill's men could deliver a spectacular result against the Germans.

O'Neill welcomes expectation but wants fans to be realistic too.

"Expectations are a good thing but must be tinged with realism as well," he stated. "There's not 25 players on my list who are playing in the Premier League or even the Championship. This team has punched above its weight and hopefully will continue to do so.

"Everyone should be proud of this group of players. We should enjoy it but not burden them."

Belfast Telegraph


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