The World Cup has only just ended, but understandably football fans all over the world are still thinking over the action. It was an incredibly enjoyable tournament, and one that American analyst and former player Alexi Lalas called the best ever. We saw good teams go down early, surprising teams make deep runs, and ultimately a six-goal final that saw the classiest team of the tournament - France - hoisting the Cup. Without considering allegiance to a particular country, it’s hard to imagine what more we could have asked for.

And rest assured, the 2018 World Cup’s impact will be felt, as is usually the case, for months to come. First and foremost, the performances of the best players at the Cup figure to have an immediate impact on the summer transfer market for domestic clubs. Croatian winger Ivan Perisic is already in the rumour mill for after a very strong showing at the Cup, having helped his team get all the way to the final. And other names like Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld have come up in a similar context. And following the transfer market, the world will be eyeing the top international sides in a new way - with France at the top of the world, England back on the international stage, and questions suddenly swirling about the likes of Germany and Brazil. In a sense, the World Cup has a way of resetting football all over the planet.

But where Northern Ireland is concerned, the passing of the 2018 World Cup means a fresh opportunity and a new qualifying cycle on the horizon. While not much will happen on this front in 2018 or 2019, save some internal preparation, we’ll all be looking forward to 2020 and the beginning of a new series of international play that - hopefully - will start the Northern Irish side on a path toward what would be its first World Cup berth in decades.

As fans will recall it was a goalless draw against Switzerland and a questionable penalty decision that doomed Northern Ireland’s hopes at going to Russia back in 2017. This, while still somewhat depressing to think back on, is a reminder that the team was very close to ending a 32-year drought, as well as a more general reminder that anything can happen in the crowded European qualifying ranks. Even more interesting though, is the fact that we could be looking at a situation in which each of the next two World Cups - in Qatar and then in North America - could introduce an expanded field of 48 countries.

This is believed to be a decided reality for the 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, which will have a lot of teams around the world targeting a berth when they might not otherwise have much of a chance at one. But according to the Belfast Telegraph a 48-team field is still being discussed for Qatar as well. This would almost certainly result in more open slots for European teams, with 13 already guaranteed. It’s difficult to know how things will go over the course of the next four years, but if we reimagine Russian qualifying for a 48-team event, it stands to reason that Northern Ireland would have made it in, given how close the team came to getting in with just 32 spots.

We aren’t getting into the specifics of the roster or managerial situation moving forward because we’re still more than a year off from qualifying. Nor do we mean to suggest that an expanded field is a necessity, given, once again, how close things were in 2017. However, with FIFA considering 48 teams for Qatar and confirming as many for North America, the opportunities are only going to get better moving forward. Northern Ireland should attack the upcoming qualifying process with a vengeance, and with the knowledge that ending the drought is only getting more possible.