The minnows are coming

An Albanian fan kisses his shirt before the Euro 2016 match against Romania. (Catherine Ivill, Getty Images)
An Albanian fan kisses his shirt before the Euro 2016 match against Romania. (Catherine Ivill, Getty Images)

Johannesburg - When the Euro 2016 draw was made in December last year, footballing minnows such as Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland were in
the hat.

As countries continue their journey towards the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018, the so-called minnows throughout Europe hope to go a step further and secure their ticket to the global event.

Three games into their qualifiers, Iceland were again looking strong in their group, as the team from this country with a population of less than 350 000 was ahead of some of the teams that would traditionally be much stronger, such as Turkey and Ukraine.

Those teams presumably would have more registered footballers than Iceland has inhabitants.

Defensive midfielder Chris Baird, who played for Northern Ireland at the Euros but announced his retirement from international football shortly afterwards, said that he believed the team would have more success.

“They have a taste of it now, and will want to continue that and progress [from there]. Hopefully, we can qualify again and I don’t see why not. But it is a big ask.

“We never get it easy and we always get some big team in there. We did it in the last campaign and you never know in football what will happen,” the 34-year-old said.

Northern Ireland coach Martin O’Neill, whose side has been drawn into a tough group with Germany, the Czech Republic and Norway, also believes that his players have tasted blood.

“They want to continue with it. When you have experienced being at a major final, it certainly whets your appetite. And I think we see that, in the fact that Baird is the only player not to go forward with the squad.”

Another team that is putting in a strong challenge for one of the 13 slots available for European nations is Montenegro, which managed to pick up seven points from their three opening matches.

But therein also lies the difficulty for the minnows: Montenegro is chasing one of 13 slots.

Since football competitions are being used as electioneering and vote-buying tools, the number of finalists in competitions is forever increasing.

Uefa president Michel Platini, who was at that stage still seeking the Fifa presidency, increased the number of Euro finalists from 16 to 24, which, in
effect, meant that just about one in two teams in Europe qualified for the finals.

The World Cup is a different story – there is one team more in the qualifiers (Kosovo and Gibraltar were recognised by Fifa in May), but 11 qualifying places less.

During the Euro qualifiers, in some cases even a third-place finish was good enough to ensure automatic qualification and all second-placed teams went through, whereas in the World Cup, that is not the case.

Only the eight best-placed teams retain their chance of qualifying for Russia 2018, as they will be involved in two-legged play-off matches to determine the final four places.

However, if there is one thing predictable about football, it is that it is unpredictable, and Iceland already came to within two games of qualifying for Brazil, losing out only in the play-off rounds to Croatia.

One Uefa team that managed to break through into the elite was Israel.

“Anything is possible in football. We just need to believe,” Israel midfielder Beram Kayal said.

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