It was not a lack of respect that made England glad to draw Scotland in qualifying for the World Cup 2018. By that stage, after two hours of glass balls, ballet and mundane interviews in the Konstantinovsky Palace, it had come down to a stark choice for Roy Hodgson's team: Scotland, or Italy. Notwithstanding Scotland's sharp improvement under Gordon Strachan the preference was clear.
Oliver Bierhoff, the former German international, picked out the right ball, England went into Group F, and Spain were sent into Group G with Italy. With only the winners qualifying automatically either the 2006 champions, or those of 2010, are heading for a play-off, at best.
England will fancy their chances of reaching the finals from a group that also includes Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Malta, all of whom they have a 100 per cent record against. Scotland will believe they can take points from England and at least a play-off spot, but may not be consistent enough to top the group.
It will be the first time the pair have met in the World Cup since the Home Internationals doubled as qualifiers in 1950 and 1954. The top two qualified but Scotland refused to accept their place in 1950 after coming second. Four years later they did take the option, only to lose 7-0 against Uruguay in the finals.
Hodgson, in St Petersburg for the draw, said: “It is a good draw all round – I think Scotland will be happy with it and we are happy with it. I don’t want to suggest Italy are stronger than Scotland, but we have played a lot of games against Italy recently and I thought that group with the rest of the teams in it looked more tricky than the group we have found ourselves in.” Hodgson’s contract expires at the end of Euro 2016 and he said: “I’m pleased to come away with a good group and if England want me to lead the team I will be delighted to do so. If we can come through Euro 2016 without too many tears being shed I believe we have a good chance of qualifying for 2018.” He added: “The Scotland fixture really does excite people.”
That was confirmed by Strachan, who was at Hampden Park. He said: “It is a draw that has made a lot of people happy. Just as the sun came out in Glasgow it was pulled out of the hat and there were a lot of delirious people here. I can see why, it is a fantastic fixture.”
There was a second domestic pairing when Wales drew Republic of Ireland. A group that also included Austria, Serbia, Moldova and Georgia was rich reward for Wales earning a place among the top seeds for the first time.
Northern Ireland, another team on the rise, had a reasonable draw. World champions Germany provide glamour, the other opponents, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino, offer hope of snatching a play-off place.
Group G was not the only potential Group of Death, Group A pitted Netherlands and France with Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg. Compared to the alternatives England had done well.
Elsewhere, Angola and South Africa were paired in a knock-out round while the Concacaf draw, fortuitously, kept Mexico apart from Costa Rica and Panama. They have protested to Fifa that their defeats by Mexico in the Gold Cup were fixed. Mexico were given late, decisive and controversial penalties against both.
Twenty three nations have already been knocked out of qualifying, mainly in Asia and the Caribbean, and two more (Zimbabwe and Indonesia) expelled. The 183 remaining countries will be reduced to 31 before joining the host nation.
That, of course, is Russia. The many controversies swirling around the choice of Qatar to stage the 2022 finals have deflected attention from the 2018 vote. Now, though, the spotlight is on and it shines a harsh light. No evidence of corruption has been found, but Russia’s failure to provide the computers used for their bid to the Garcia investigation fuelled suspicions. Then there is the festering issue of the war in Ukraine, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for which sanctions remain in place.
A third problem is the apparently endemic racism. This week Fifa asked the Russian Football Union to explain why Emmanuel Frimpong, the former Arsenal midfielder, has been punished for responding to racist abuse by Spartak Moscow supporters, but the offending fans have not.
Nevertheless the draw, attended by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Sepp Blatter (his first trip outside Swiss borders since the FBI raided Fifa) effectively confirms the finals will be in Russia, the first to straddle two continents. Construction is underway at 11 venues and given what has already come to pass it would take something truly remarkable for the juggernaut to be halted now.Reuse content