That memorable result, courtesy of Ray Houghton’s 17th minute strike on a sultry June afternoon at Giants Stadium, should serve as some form of inspiration for the Republic when they face champions Italy in the qualifying competition for South Africa ’10.
For the first time the World Cup winners are required to negotiate the qualifying stage, having previously been granted an automatic place in the finals.
Ireland and Italy, who’ve met just once since 1994 — a 2-1 friendly win by the Azzurri in Dublin two years ago — were lumped in Group 8 of the European zone qualifiers at the preliminary round draw in Durban, South Africa last Sunday.
Bulgaria, Georgia, FIFA newcomers Montenegro and Cyprus complete what looks like another challenging group for Ireland.
Predictably, Italy have been installed as early favorites to top the Republic’s group, from which only the winners will qualify for the first World Cup to be held on the African continent.
Ireland and Bulgaria — the latter absent from the finals since Hristo Stoichkov led them to the last four at USA ’94 — are favored to vie for second spot, whose reward is a playoff place. The eight best runners-up (from nine groups) meet in four play-offs to produce a total of 13 European finalists.
Bulgaria had a better European campaign that the Irish, only narrowly failing to qualify for next year’s tournament.
However, Montenegro, who’ve recently joined FIFA after splitting from Serbia (previously Yugoslavia) could be the dark horses.
And as Ireland very well know, Cyprus can be nettlesome spoilers after following up that 5-2 humiliation of the Republic in Nicosia during the Euro ’08 qualifiers with a 1-1 draw in Dublin last month.
Georgia, though, might be considered a stronger side than Cyprus. They lost to Italy twice by 2-goal margins in the European campaign but beat Scotland 2-0.
Northern Ireland’s task appears no easier in Group Three. They’ll have to run the predominantly Eastern European gauntlet of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and minnows San Marino to reach their first World Cup since 1986.
The other European zone qualifying groups for 2010 are: Group One – Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Albania, Malta; Group Two — Greece, Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia, Luxembourg; Group Four — Germany, Russia, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein.
Group Five — Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Armenia, Estonia; Group Six: Croatia, England, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Andorra; Group Seven: France, Romania, Serbia, Lithuania, Austria, Faroe Islands; and Group Nine – Holland, Scotland, Norway, Macedonia and Iceland.
A record 200 teams will participate in the qualifying tournament. After 861 qualifying matches, 31 nations will join South Africa in the finals.