From west Belfast to World Cup hero, Nathan Garland-O'Neill racking up the goals in Qatar
THERE may be no Irish representation at the World Cup in Qatar, but Belfast man Nathan Garland-O’Neill has been flying the flag in impressive fashion during a taster event for the big one next year.
Garland-O’Neill is Ireland’s top scorer at the Fifa Community World Cup, having bagged eight goals in four games on the way to Sunday’s quarter-final stage – with Algeria standing between them and a possible last four showdown with England.
Played at Al Rayyan’s Ahmed Bin Ali complex, the Community World Cup included 32 teams at the start, based on the nationality groups living within the country, with each required to have a minimum of three players from the nation they are representing.
Garland-O’Neill, who is only a couple of months into a two-year contract as a teacher at Cardiff International School, was playing in a local league when Irish managers Ronan Kelly and Niall Keogh spotted his eye for goal.
With the competition just a matter of weeks away, he was asked to throw his shoulder to the wheel.
And since coming on at half-time – and scoring - in the opening day win over Japan, the former Willowbank midfielder maintained that rich vein of form in the remaining group games against Malaysia and USA before adding another goal in the 4-0 last eight victory over Ethiopia last weekend.
“The whole experience has just been amazing up until now, and hopefully we can keep that going on Sunday,” said Garland-O’Neill, who also played Gaelic football for O’Donnell’s before trading west Belfast for the Middle East in August.
“It’s some difference playing football out here compared to back home. Within a few minutes of a match it looks like you’re just out of the shower because you’re sweating that much!
“I’m still getting used to that side of it, but it is getting easier - Ronan and Niall were actually surprised how quickly I adapted to the heat. But the pitches are like carpets, they’re a joy to play on, and the games are all at night so it’s not too bad.
“Every team has been in the same position I suppose, they only had a certain amount of training sessions in a short space of time to get to know each other and try and build up a relationship.
“Thankfully we seemed to find our feet and gel pretty quickly, but we have a tough game on Sunday. Algeria knocked out Egypt, who would have been seen as one of the favourites, but it would be amazing if we could win and maybe get a crack at England in the semi.”
Fifa decided to run the Community World Cup in a bid to raise awareness and engage the people living in the country, many of whom - like Garland-O’Neill – are part of a growing foreign workforce.
Qatar 2022 will see the World Cup take place in the Middle East for the first time, and the 25-year-old was expecting a big buzz ahead of the arrival of soccer’s biggest names. Just over a year away, however, the build-up has been muted.
“It’s strange… there’s not really much talk about it.
“Since the Community World Cup started, there’s been a bit of a buzz about this tournament, and people are asking ‘what’s this about?’ Then when you tell them it’s like a starter for the actual World Cup, they’re like ‘what’s that then?’ It’s mad.
“A lot of people in Qatar still don’t seem to really know a lot about football, or about the World Cup, even though it’s happening here next year. I was in one of the restaurants the other day and there was a match on but no-one was really watching it.
“That’s obviously why Fifa are trying to push football as much as possible now, to try and get that interest generated before next year. I’m sure World Cup fever will have caught on by then.”