November 15 – Last year at Euro 2016, there were smiling Irish fans wherever you looked while Iceland – who went on to defy their minnow status – joined Sweden as the only Scandinavian representatives at the tournament.
How football fortunes can quickly change.
Following Sweden’s shock elimination of Italy, neighbours Denmark have now joined them and already-qualified Iceland at next year’s finals, in the process ensuring there will no Irish green army – north or south – in Russia.
Christian Eriksen’s stunning hat-trick in a 5-1 thrashing of Martin O’Neill’s disjointed Republic of Ireland on Tuesday secured the final European berth in the last of the four playoffs but broke Irish hearts – just as Northern Ireland’s hopes had been dashed by Switzerland.
“It’s an incredible feeling. We’ve been fighting for so long to get to the World Cup,” said Eriksson whose country last qualified for the 2010 tournament in South Africa and are unbeaten in 2017.
The Republic, by contrast, have now failed to qualify for the last four World Cups and although both O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane agreed new contracts with the Football Association of Ireland back in October, questions are now likely to be asked as to whether they are the right men to take the country forward especially given the tactics in Dublin that gave Denmark far too much space despite the tie being locked at 0-0 after the first leg.
With all the European berths for Russia now finalised, Denmark will now wait to find out the result between Peru and New Zealand – the final playoff encounter across the globe – to see whether they are in pot 2 or pot 3 for the tournament. If the South Americans go out, Denmark will go into the higher pot as one of the second seeds alongside fellow European teams England, Spain and Switzerland.
Europe’s representation in Russia certainly has an unfamiliar look about it. Iceland, who many experts thought would struggle to qualify for a major finals again despite their exploits at the Euros, are the only country with a population of under one million to have ever reached a World Cup.
By contrast, four-time winners Italy missed out on a World Cup for the first time since 1958 while the Netherlands have failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments, having also missed out on Euro 2016.
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