O’Neill will give ris­ing stars big chance to shine on tour

Belfast Telegraph - - SPORT - BYGRAHAMLUNEY

MICHAEL O’Neill will to­day name his North­ern Ire­land squad for the end-of-sea­son tour of Cen­tral Amer­ica with a strong em­pha­sis on the next gen­er­a­tion.

O’Neill is ex­pected to dip into the Un­der-21 panel, of­fer­ing ris­ing stars the chance to show they can step up for the se­nior side.

For­mer Lin­field hero and now QPR ace Paul Smyth net­ted on his se­nior North­ern Ire­land de­but, scor­ing the win­ner in a 2-1 vic­tory over World Cup-bound South Korea in the Wind­sor Park friendly in March, and O’Neill is hop­ing more fresh faces can show­case their tal­ent on the tour.

Cru­saders ace Gavin Whyte must be a strong con­tender to make the cut af­ter im­press­ing for the Un­der-21s and light­ing up the Danske Bank Premier­ship with the Shore Road side.

The 22-year-old, who lifted the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year gongs, looks set to move to the full-time game this sum­mer with League Two side Craw­ley Town the first club to make an of­fer.

Whyte im­pressed in the Un­der-21 games against Spain and Iceland but it is his goalscor­ing form in the Premier­ship that has alerted cross-channel clubs and caught O’Neill’s eye.

Ever­ton striker Shayne Lav­ery and Rangers mid­fielder Jor­dan Thomp­son could also be in­cluded in O’Neill’s youth­ful squad.

North­ern Ire­land will take on Panama in Panama City on Tues­day, May 29, be­fore fac­ing Costa Rica on Sun­day, June 3 in San Jose. O’Neill sug­gested he would place faith in his ris­ing stars by say­ing: “Two years ago we went to Uruguay and Chile with a rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced team.

“This year we have a stronger squad but there will be an op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce more ex­cit­ing young play­ers.”

There is fur­ther good news for O’Neill af­ter Fifa con­firmed they will be for­mally dis­cussing ex­pand­ing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 to 48 teams at their pre-Rus­sia 2018 congress on June 13 in Moscow.

Fifa’s coun­cil unan­i­mously ap­proved a plan to add 16 more teams to the World Cup from 2026 on­wards in Jan­u­ary 2017 but the fed­er­a­tion’s pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino is keen to bring that ex­pan­sion for­ward.

In­fantino at­tended a meet­ing of the South Amer­i­can con­fed­er­a­tion CON­MEBOL in Buenos Aires last month, when the idea to ex­pand Qatar 2022 first emerged. Speak­ing to re­porters at that meet­ing, In­fantino de­scribed the South Amer­i­can pro­posal as “very in­ter­est­ing” and wor­thy of se­ri­ous study, and re­stated his com­mit­ment to en­larg­ing the World Cup “for the de­vel­op­ment of foot­ball”.

North­ern Ire­land came ag­o­nis­ingly close to mak­ing it to this sum­mer’s fi­nals in Rus­sia but were left curs­ing a con­tro­ver­sial penalty de­ci­sion in the play-off loss to Switzer­land.

In another in­ter­na­tional foot­ball de­vel­op­ment that O’Neill will have noted, the Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion for Sport (CAS) has re­jected Mu­nir El Had­dadi’s ap­peal against Fifa’s rul­ing that pre­vented him from play­ing for Morocco. The for­ward, who is on loan at Alaves from Barcelona, had re- quested to switch national al­le­giance from Spain.

Fifa rules bar play­ers from chang­ing national teams once they have played a com­pet­i­tive in­ter­na­tional, even if they hold dual na­tion­al­ity.

The 22-year-old made a sin­gle ap­pear­ance for Spain, in a Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­onship qual­i­fier against Mace­do­nia in Septem­ber 2014, when he came on as a sub­sti­tute and played less than 15 min­utes.

Play­ers born in North­ern Ire­land can choose to play for the Re­pub­lic but O’Neill has ex­pressed con­cerns over how the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land pur­sue play­ers.

On El Had­dadi’s ap­peal, Gary McAl­lis­ter, spokesper­son for the Amal­ga­ma­tion of Of­fi­cial North­ern Ire­land Sup­port­ers’ Clubs, com­mented on Twit­ter: “This is an im­por­tant rul­ing. Fur­ther di­lu­tion of the el­i­gi­bil­ity rules would be an ab­so­lute non­sense.”

El Had­dadi, who made his ap­peal jointly with the Moroc­can Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion, had asked for a fast-track rul­ing in the hope of play­ing for the North Africans at the World Cup.

Squad goals: Michael O’Neill is ready to an­nounce who will be go­ing on NI’s tour of Cen­tral Amer­ica

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