Tonight sees the first of the play-off matches which will ultimately determine the final European representatives at the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018. The fans of Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Croatia, Greece, Sweden, Italy, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland will all be excitedly following their teams’ progress, hoping that they are able to triumph over the course of the two-legged play-offs and to secure a place in Russia.
In terms of quality of football, the UEFA Champions League may now represent the pinnacle of the game to many fans. Yet the FIFA World Cup unquestionably remains the highest level of international football. It retains a certain glamour and provides fans across the world with one month every four years in which they can gorge themselves on a feast of football.
The World Cup also retains a position of importance for players. Most (if not all) players grew up watching World Cups as youngsters and they still dream of the day that they represent their nation at the apex of international football. Moreover, as the tournament comes around only every four years, a number of the world’s most talented players will never make it to a World Cup. This is not a problem that the most gifted players tend to encounter in domestic football: the very best players tend to get a chance to play in UEFA competition at some point in their careers, as the best clubs will seek to sign them. Yet international football often results in cases where certain players have the requisite skill-set to play at the World Cup but, put simply, their compatriots do not. As a result, once qualification for a World Cup becomes a reality, players tend to give their very best efforts to secure a place at the tournament.
It is against this background that we consider the curious case of Greek defender Kostas Manolas.