Tonight’s World Cup match between Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan is absolutely pivotal to our country’s chances of building a strong qualifying campaign.
Azerbaijan’s footballing pedigree might be relatively unknown, but they lie second in Northern Ireland’s group and victory is essential if Michael O’Neill’s men want to plot a realistic course to Russia in 2018.
However, the tie itself has been completely overshadowed by the continuing controversy over poppies.
It is important to emphasise that this is a mess predominantly of FIFA’s making. Football’s world governing body, notorious for its own corrupt past, has claimed that the wearing of poppies on players’ shirts would contravene rules forbidding the presence of ‘political messages’ on shirts.
England and Scotland, who meet in a qualifier at Wembley tonight, have jointly decided to press ahead with plans to wear the poppy emblem on their respective shirts, flying in the face of a threatened FIFA fine or a points reduction.
Northern Ireland’s governing body the Irish Football Association (IFA), have since become embroiled in the controversy and earlier this week it was announced that instead of a poppy emblem, Northern Ireland’s players will wear black armbands tonight.
The IFA’s reasoning was that financially they couldn’t cope with a fine, or see a World Cup campaign potentially fatally damaged by a points reduction.
That explanation was unpalatable to some, and understood by others, including some well placed supporters, but the latest twist, which saw the temporary withdrawal of a Northern Ireland replica shirt bearing a poppy before it was put back on sale, was an unnecessary and self-inflicted IFA blow.
Increasingly, the feeling is that the IFA seems to have handled the whole episode rather badly.
Yes, it’s ultimately a mess of FIFA’s making but the IFA shouldn’t be absolved from blame.