Eight weeks after the final of Euro 2016, competitive international football gets underway again in UEFA. The temptation is to shrug and wearily regard the World Cup qualifiers as another turn of an endless treadmill, the qualifiers as an unwelcome interruption to the nascent domestic seasons. But these are not like the qualifiers for the Euros. There is jeopardy: only 13 sides from Europe (along with host Russia) will qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and that means only the winners of each of the nine groups are guaranteed a place on the grand stage.
And however much this may feel like drudgery, a return to the stodginess of international football, it is for many nations a new beginning, with coaches departed after the Euros. Of all the many sides hoping for a new start, none perhaps is quite so desperate as the Netherlands, whose failure to qualify for the expanded Euros ranks as probably the most embarrassing performance by a major nation in three decades.
The Dutch's reconstruction under Danny Blind, who took charge long before the Euros amid the shambles of their qualification campaign, had seemed to be progressing well. They had won friendlies in Wales, England, Poland and Austria since the end of the Euro qualifiers, but the past few weeks have been chaotic. Both Blind’s assistants have left–Dick Advocaat to become manager of Fenerbahce and Marco van Basten to take up a role with FIFA–while federation president Bert van Oostveen resigned this week. And then, on Thursday, the Dutch lost in a friendly against Greece.
It’s true that was a slightly weakened team, but the Netherlands is in the toughest of the UEFA groups.
*Winner of each group qualifies automatically for World Cup 2018. The eight runners-up with the best record against the teams finishing first, third, fourth and fifth in their groups go into a playoff round to determine four more berths.
On Tuesday, the Netherlands goes to Sweden, itself smarting after a chastening Euro 2016 in which it didn’t even manage a shot on target by one of its own players until the third game, and next month there are home games against Belarus and France. If the new side doesn’t come together quickly, the Dutch could be out of a second successive tournament–after two straight top-three finishes at World Cups, no less–the new beginning stifled almost before it’s begun.
France itself remains a great team in potential but not in actuality. The players are there–no other European side has such strength in depth–but Didier Deschamps never found the right combination during the Euros. Realistically, France should be a favorite for the next World Cup, but an away trip to Belarus is the kind of game in which it could drop points and generate pressure given the other sides in the group.
England’s new dawn under Sam Allardyce begins almost where the Roy Hodgson regime left off, as his side goes to Trnava to face Slovakia. It was a draw against Slovakia with a much-changed side in the final group game that led England to face Iceland in the last 16, when defeat prompted Hodgson’s resignation.
Allardyce’s first squad contained few surprises–Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley were omitted and West Ham’s Michail Antonio included, while Wayne Rooney was confirmed as captain–and the truth is that a repeat of the result that undid Hodgson, a goal-less draw, would probably be quite acceptable here–although it should be remembered that England had a 29-2 edge in chances in the match in St Etienne; its failure to score was a little freakish.
England again has a weak group and faces what is probably its hardest game first, which is part of the problem of international football. A disastrous failure to qualify is possible, but there won’t be a challenge by which England’s progress can really be measured until the World Cup itself. Reputations at the international level are often made or unmade by just one or two games.
Belgium also looks for a spark to ignite an underperforming group of players with new management. Former Wigan and Everton manager Roberto Martinez has a reputation as a coach who can be inspirational but who lacks organizational skills, which in the short term may be what is necessary to get Belgium’s array of attacking talent playing with fluency; the defensive issues are unlikely to be an issue before the World Cup.
Martinez was a surprising appointment but even more striking is his assistant, Thierry Henry, who took the job after Arsene Wenger asked him to choose between his role as a television pundit and coaching Arsenal's Under-18s. The new post allows him to gain experience in coaching while continuing with his media career. The two truly begin their reign away to Greece on Saturday following Thursday's friendly loss to Spain.
Speaking of Spain, it, too, is under new management, with Vicente Del Bosque leaving after following a poor World Cup with a disappointing Euros. Julen Lopetegui gets under way against Liechtenstein. Italy, the other giant in a testing group, appointed Giampiero Ventura to succeed Antonio Conte. Given the extent to which Italy at the Euros seemed a projection of Conte’s personality, there is cause for some trepidation before a trip to Israel.
Germany, the defending champion, continues under Jogi Low after an uninspired Euros. A trip to Norway on Sunday represents one of the harder fixtures in a rather straightforward group. Meanwhile, Portugal, the reigning European champion, will be without Cristiano Ronaldo as it begins life after winning its first international trophy with a game away to Switzerland.
The return of international football may feel like an unwelcome imposition, but an early misstep, especially by those gaining footing under new circumstances, could make the road to Russia a hard one to travel.