When Sven Goran Eriksson, having been rushed in front of the television cameras for an instant reaction to Friday's European Championship draw, opined that going to Turkey "shall be very nice", he was guilty of not only linguistic inexactitude but a descent into self-parody. Not even Alistair McGowan in rimless specs and an England blazer would have suggested that Istanbul, where the locals gloatingly drag out their "Welcome to hell" banners for British visitors, will be in any sense "nice".
Playing the tie 300 kilometres to the south in Izmir, the venue for England's last three visits, would not necessarily be "nice" either, though there would be less likelihood of direct confrontation with supporters of Galatasaray, the Istanbul club involved when two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death before the Uefa Cup semi-final in 2000.
It seems, however, that the Turkish coach, Senol Gunes, wants to stoke the fires of hell and take on England at Galatasaray's Ali Sami Yen stadium, where Liverpool are due for a Champions' League tie on 26 February. As Gérard Houllier's team play at home to the Turkish club the week before that, Merseyside could have a useful role to play in harmonising relations between the two countries.
Adam Crozier, the Football Association's chief executive, confirmed yesterday that further talks will be held with the Turkish FA to minimise the chance of trouble once dates and venues have been sorted out at the fixture meeting of all countries in the group, which Turkey will host in March. Crozier will seek advice from the Foreign Office not only on that visit but on the trip to Macedonia. When the Republic of Ireland last played in Skopje (where conceding a last-minute equaliser cost the Irish a place at Euro 2000) they were uncomfortably aware throughout the stay of the proximity of Kosovo, where civil unrest continues.
Ireland's Mick McCarthy – given every incentive by his country's draw to sign a new contract – would be as valuable a source of information to the FA as Eriksson's Swedish friends, who came across Turkey, Slovakia and Macedonia in their World Cup qualifying group. The Irish, after meeting Macedonia, played Turkey in a two-leg play-off; unlike England, they have also been to Liechtenstein, where "God Save The Queen" was played as the home country's national anthem.
England's security worries might have been doubled if Eusebio had dropped England in with Wales, rather than Macedonia, to give the Welsh the draw they wanted. After 18 years without a fixture against the country they first played at Kennington Oval in 1879, it rankles in Cardiff that England are no longer interested in meeting them, for the loss of revenue from the British Championship, disbanded in 1984, has hit the Football Association of Wales hard.
Despite the events of last month, when Leeds travelled to Cardiff in the FA Cup, the FAW would have been quite prepared to take on the added aggravation of a visit from England to the Millennium Stadium. Instead, they received the next best thing, a home game that will fill the ground, against the Euro 2000 runners-up Italy. "From the financial aspect, it's a great starting point," the former Wales manager Bobby Gould said, as a man who has learnt to watch the pennies in most of the managerial positions of his colourful career. "The coffers will be topped up again, Italian TV will want to buy the rights and that's huge money. You just need that one game financially."
Mark Hughes, who still tends to concentrate on the footballing side of the job, admitted to being a little deflated once Italy had been added to Yugoslavia, Finland and Azerbaijan as opponents barring the way to Portugal in two years' time. In the World Cup "group of debt" the Welsh suffered uncomfortable and unrewarding journeys to Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, drawing no fewer than six of their 10 games yet managing to win only one, at home to Belarus.
Hughes' only hope is that his squad can go that extra mile and translate some of the draws into victories this time, to push them close to a play-off place. He needs to emphasise to them that every result matters, even once qualification is impossible; extra points improve the coefficient on which seedings are decided for major tournaments and without them, countries like Wales and Northern Ireland become trapped in a downward spiral. Had Wales won even the two matches they drew against Armenia, they would have been in a higher seeding pot on Friday and could have played, say, Lithuania instead of Finland.
England have themselves suffered from inadequate qualifying results, which was why they were ranked as low as 17th in the draw. The consequence could have been two matches against a much stronger team than Turkey, with or without the extra aggravation.Reuse content