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Monday 18 December 2017

Ireland's conquerors dream of Russia for their Group of Hope

Age Hareide
Age Hareide

A penny for the thoughts of Martin O'Neill at 3pm today when the draw for the World Cup finals pops up on our screens.

We're not sure if the frosty relations in a previously-warm connection between O'Neill and Age Hareide have healed, not since Hareide's sniffy comment that O'Neill's Ireland team were "easy to read" for the second leg of that playoff.

And the super-sensitive O'Neill is possibly still smarting from the remark by Hareide where he thanked O'Neill for fielding the formation which the Norwegian-born coach of Denmark had predicted.

But we do know what Hareide wants from today's draw. Pestered by the media to pick his "dream draw", he relented and admitted the group which he would like to be in, a group which is probably similar to the one O'Neill would have chosen.

"I want Russia," he says. "There is a lot of pressure on them because they are at home and have all of Russia on their backs.

"Then I would like a South American team, it would be great if we could get Peru. And then Panama as a fourth team. It will be my dream scenario to meet those three teams," he added.

Ireland were undone the last time they played a tournament hosts, in France last year, but O'Neill would possibly have echoed Hareide in wishing for a draw with the Russian hosts, a side who go into the 2018 finals with little expectation, despite the burden of being hosts.

Russia are, incredible as it may seem, ranked in 65th place in the world rankings, and in terms of European team only they are 33rd, out of 54 nations. Bosnia, Norway and Albania are ahead of Russia.

The draw is made in Moscow today (3pm Irish time). Teams have been put into one of four pots, according to the FIFA rankings (apart from Russia, who go into pot one, despite their dismal ranking). England are in pot two.

No more than two European teams can be in the same group, but the other confederations are further limited to one per group, so two South American sides cannot go head to head in the group phase, for example.

Russia as a nation, and not just the Russian FA or World Cup organising committee, have worked hard to put a friendly face on the tournament, even bringing in Gary Lineker as one of the co-presenters for the draw.

Vladimir Putin's regime sees the 2018 World Cup as a chance to show Russia in a positive light, and so far the organisers have made the right noises.

FIFA's head man Giovanni Infantino has promised that action will be taken in the event of racist chanting during games, with what they are calling a "three-step procedure" that gives officials the power to stop, suspend and call off fixtures if chanting occurs.

"We will be very, very firm," he said. "We can expect fair play in Russia. We'll make sure that no incidents will happen."

However, only last week, fans of Zenit St Petersburg were able to unfurl, and keep in place during a home Europa League match, a banner hailing convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic as a "Serbian Hero".

And this week, campaigners with FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) warned gay or non-white fans planning to visit Russia: "do go to the World Cup, but be cautious".

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