The fascinating international football dilemma facing Liverpool, Brighton, and Wolves stars
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It was Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, who stated, ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’. On Wednesday evening, having been for a pint or two with a visiting friend, I came home, turned on the television, and fortuitously stumbled across that one episode of South Park where Randy keeps on getting into fights at little league baseball games. It is, by any metric, a masterpiece. The real crux of the plot, however, revolves around the boys and their deliberate efforts to lose matches to ensure that they can have the summer they truly want, rather than one they would otherwise be railroaded into. Less than a week later and the Republic of Ireland find themselves in a very similar predicament.
You see, UEFA have made an oversight (I know! How unlike them!) and now, for complicated reasons beyond the breadth of human comprehension or attention spans, it is considerably more beneficial to the Irish if they lose their European Championship qualifier against the Netherlands next month as it will give them a greater chance of sneaking their way into a play-off spot. This is what the bookmakers refer to as ‘a bloody nightmare’.
As things stand, the Republic sit second bottom in their qualifying group, having taken just six points from seven matches. (Both of their two victories thus far have been routine spankings of Gibraltar, in case you were wondering.) Mathematically, they have no chance whatsoever of securing automatic passage to next summer’s tournament in Germany, and ordinarily, their hopes would have gone the way of candy floss in a puddle.
But thanks to the bureaucratic jiggery-pokery of UEFA’s pencil pushers, all is not lost. In a series of mental gymnastics that makes the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method look like a game of pat-a-cake, the governing body has thrown the Irish a proverbial life jacket. It transpires that play-off spots will not be allocated on the basis of how well a country has done in this current qualifying campaign, but rather, how well they performed during the last rotation of the Nations League. And that could be very, very good news for the Republic of Ireland.
The plan is that four sides from each of the top three Nations League divisions - A, B, and (check this out) C - will be given a second chance at qualification, but the exact designation of play-off spots is subject to some alteration. Seeing as six sides have already earned their spot at the Euros, with Belgium, France, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, and Turkey all joining hosts Germany, and that among those sides Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, and Germany were all ranked in League A - plus the fact that that fellow League A nations Denmark, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, England, and Wales all currently occupy a top two spot in their respective groups - the cogs are whirring in the Republic’s favour.
Croatia, meanwhile, sit third in their qualifying group, but are level on points with Wales, while Poland are also third in their cluster and are one point behind Czech Republic. This is where the Netherlands come into play. The Dutch are also a League A side, and having beat Greece on Monday night courtesy of a stoppage time penalty from Virgil van Dijk, now know that if they can see off the Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar in November, they will be on their way to Germany. If that happens and results elsewhere aid Ireland’s cause, then only two play-off spots would be given to League A teams. (By the way, if you’re somehow still following all of then this you’re an infinitely sharper person than I am.)
UEFA regulations state that ‘if fewer than four teams from one league enter the play-offs, the first available slot is allocated to the best-ranked group winner of League D’. That nation is Estonia, but any remaining spots will then be given to the ‘best-ranked teams that have not already qualified’. The Republic of Ireland are ranked 26th and would therefore advance to the play-offs if various other pieces fall into place, and only four teams above them in League B fail to qualify automatically.
The whole scheme will be scuppered, however, if Greece finish above the Netherlands in their group. As such, it would be incredibly useful to the Irish if they were to simply lose to the Dutch in an effort to help them towards a maximum points tally in their remaining two fixtures. Got it? Good. And breathe.
Quite how UEFA have left themselves bound to an office chair in a straitjacket made from their own red tape is a matter that will no doubt be chewed over long into the night around fluorescent-lit conference tables, but from an outside perspective, next month’s clash between the Irish and the Dutch now promises to make for a perverse spectacle. Do the Republic bother naming the likes of Brighton’s Evan Ferguson and Wolves’ Matt Doherty along with express instructions to take it as easy as humanly possible without falling foul of certain vaguely-defined match-fixing restrictions, or do they field the kids and let nature take it’s course? In the face of a Netherlands side with the bit between their teeth, would their stiffest protestations make much difference anyways?
Either way, it is sure to be appointment viewing, and I, for one, would like to be the first in congratulating the Dutch on smashing their way past Australia’s decades-old 31-0 victory over American Samoa and into the Guinness Book of World Records.