Even the French got something out of what, for the folks either side of the English Channel, was an appetite-whetting international break. True, Didier Deschamps’ team lost 3-1 at home to a resurgent Brazil before resuming their successful run of friendlies with a 2-0 win over Denmark, but there was also the prospect of a boost for the struggling French economy in the results of all British and Irish sides.
What an invasion of football tourists there would be next summer if even three or four of the five British and Irish countries qualified for the European Championship. Although I agree with criticism of the increase in the number of finalists from 16 to 24 – if qualifying had to be made easier in order that UEFA president Michel Platini’s election promise be kept, 32 would have provided better competition in the tournament itself – there can be no doubting the surge of optimism in the game’s original countries.
Let’s set England aside for the moment. They have such overwhelming assets, in terms of population and league quality (despite all the moaning and groaning about the dominance of foreign players and managers), that they should always qualify for tournaments and perform reasonably well. It’s the Scots, Welsh and Irish (especially Northern, for the Republic have a respectable qualification record over recent decades) to whom the door has been thrown open.
As a Scotland supporter, I’m bound to be excited by our progress under Gordon Strachan even though I don’t think we’ll get through in the end because the group is so tough. The rise of Poland has more than outweighed any decline in Germany since the World Cup and the Republic of Ireland can make themselves favourites for at least third place and play-off contention by beating us in Dublin in June.
The collapse of Greece, European champions little over a decade ago, has helped Northern Ireland, who can make themselves firm favourites for a top-two place by taking something in Romania in their next match. But the neutral in me keeps looking for Wales’s results because of Gareth Bale. If ever a player deserved to qualify for a major tournament against the odds, it’s the Real Madrid attacker.
Unlike Ryan Giggs when he was by far Wales’s brightest star, Bale tends not to pick and choose his matches. He dug the team out of trouble with two goals in Andorra and this weekend he did it again with two more in a thrilling triumph away to Israel, who were threatening Wales’s chances of getting out of a group featuring Belgium.
Now unbeaten after five matches, the Welsh play host to Belgium next and what a night that could be, for Bale has the company of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey in a side that should not be underrated. Indeed I’d rate Wales and both Irish sides as very, very likely at least to be in the play-offs in the autumn. After that, we’ll be able to judge the scale of the invasion the French can expect.
England, regarded as certain qualifiers after Danny Welbeck led them to victory in their opening qualifier in Switzerland, continue to develop under Roy Hodgson. The FA should have appointed Hodgson many years ago; it’s as simple as that. The 4-0 victory over Lithuania was hailed for the scoring contributions of Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane but, for me, the main reason to be cheerful was further evidence of a team structure.
It’s rubbish that England don’t produce enough players to do well internationally. All they need is 11, properly organised – and I think we’ll see that next summer.