Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018: Northern Ireland have the glamour of Germany - and a real chance

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland fans should have known what was coming. Once it was clear Oliver Bierhoff was making the draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifying groups, one outcome was certain: Northern Ireland would be playing Germany.

You see Bierhoff and our wee country have a close affiliation.

Back in 1996 he enjoyed his time here when he was part of the Germany squad using Northern Ireland as a training camp ahead of the European Championship finals in England.

Bierhoff played in a friendly at Windsor Park in a 1-1 draw and a month later at Wembley made history by scoring football's first golden goal to win the tournament for his nation.

Despite that historic winner against the Czech Republic his international career, which started late at the age of 28, was under scrutiny when he was next in Belfast in August 1997 for a vital World Cup qualifier.

With Germany trailing to a superb Michael Hughes strike, Bierhoff came off the bench, creating more history, by scoring a six minute hat-trick, the quickest by a German, to win the game 3-1. He stated that night turned his international fortunes around and he went on to play at the highest level for another five years, claiming 70 caps and 37 goals by the time he had finished.

In 2005, when Deutschland were here to mark the IFA's 125th anniversary, Bierhoff, by now part of the German Football Association staff, reflected on his hat-trick and his happy memories of Northern Ireland telling me: "That was a great night for me and the team because we were losing and came back to win. I was very pleased to score that hat-trick and returning to Belfast brought back good memories for me."

Bierhoff (, the General Manager of Germany, will be here again on October 5, 2017 when World Cup winning boss Joachim Low brings superstars like Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze to Windsor to take on Northern Ireland for what will be the third last match of the campaign.

Germany will be hoping to have qualified by then. The ambition for Northern Ireland will be to still be in the Group C mix for runners-up spot, which would ensure a play-off.

Finishing third, unlike in the Euro 2016 qualifying process, guarantees nothing bar an agonising near miss.

Northern Ireland's chief opposition for second place will come from the Czech Republic and Norway with Azerbaijan likely to finish in fifth and San Marino certain to be bottom of the table.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill wanted to land one of Europe's biggest fish and that's exactly what he got...the continent's Great White Shark.

The IFA are overjoyed too. With the new capacity of Windsor going to be 18,000, when the stadium is eventually finished, they will have a lot of extra tickets to sell.

The prospect of seeing the World Champions in the flesh will encourage block booking requests meaning the money will roll in for the Association.

The IFA would have preferred to have hosted Germany in September next year to open the new look Windsor in style, but president Jim Shaw and chief executive Patrick Nelson left Russia at the weekend with the promise of some tasty friendlies to come in 2016, which may be capable of filling that gap if construction can be finished prior to the Euro finals.

With the excitement of playing Germany for the first time since 2005 to come, it's understandable that everyone in Northern Ireland has been viewing the rest of the opposition in Group C as an after thought.

The Czech Republic and Norway, though, will be very much the focus when the campaign begins because it will be those sides Northern Ireland must overcome to finish behind Germany.

Northern Ireland kick off away to the Czechs on September 4 next year and travel to Germany on October 11 with a home game against San Marino in between.

The qualifiers for captain Steven Davis and his team-mates will end in Norway on October 8, 2017, just three days after facing Germany in Belfast.

The two games against Azerbaijan come in the middle of the campaign and revenge will be on the agenda against a nation which took four points from Northern Ireland in the last World Cup series. It would have been six but for David Healy's injury time equaliser at Windsor, his 36th and final international goal.

The World Cup finals are tougher to reach than the Euro finals these days but Saturday's draw offers the Northern Ireland players and fans glamour games with Germany and the chance to be competitive at the right end of the table.

What we don't know yet is which players will have retired from international football by then with veterans Roy Carroll, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and possibly Chris Brunt all set to make decisions on their futures post Euro 2016.

There is much going on with the Northern Ireland team right now. Better that than some of the dismal nothing days of the past. And of course, if all goes according to plan in the remaining Euro games, there is France to come next year.

Belfast Telegraph


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