Miguel Delaney


FINALLY, you can feel the sense of anticipation; the build-up; the excitement; the anxiety. The wait -- in every sense -- is over at last.

But that doesn't mean some of the new realities shouldn't register.

Because, in the decade since Ireland last qualified for a major tournament, it's not just the country -- or, indeed, the team that represents it -- that has changed drastically. The very context of international competition has too.

Think back, for example, to the start of that 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign. Ireland immediately had to play Portugal and the Netherlands, two teams that had just reached the semi-finals of the joyous carnival of attacking football that was Euro 2000.

That summer's championships in Belgium and Holland proved a peak in the international game. It was a rare tournament in which all of the elite sides played to the absolute maximum of their ability with almost every game -- right up to the final, thrilling moment of David Trezeguet's golden-goal winner for France.

Euro 2000 has a strong claim to be the greatest international tournament of all time. And suddenly, for the very next qualification campaign, Ireland were in with two of its finest sides. Portugal and Holland set quite a benchmark for Mick McCarthy's team.

The only problem with a peak, however, is that it is inevitably followed by a comedown. And, over the next few years in international football, there was a very specific reason for what was a rather stark drop in quality.

Euro 2000, after all, was the first tournament to take place following the expansion of the Champions League to 32 teams in 1999-2000. As such, the elite players probably hadn't felt the full effects of the greatly increased number of fixtures and all of the extra, more intense demands.

By the time Ireland were famously beating the Dutch at Lansdowne Road in September 2001, however, it's at least arguable that the growing behemoth of the club game had started to take significant bits out of the international scene. For the top-end stars, their countries were becoming afterthoughts. Club football dominated like never before.

Indeed, as exceptional as Ireland were throughout that 2002 campaign, the Netherlands' failure to reach that World Cup was probably the first of a number of upsets which defined the next half-decade.

What, when you think of it, were the hallmarks of that tournament in Asia? Shocks and surprises, right from the first moment to the last.

Even the presence of traditional winners like Germany and Brazil in the 2002 final was completely out of synch with their qualifying campaigns. By contrast, the players of favourites Argentina, France and Italy were too jaded from their club careers and went out very early. The same would happen to Ronaldinho's Brazil four years later. And, in between, Greece would provide the greatest upset of all at Euro 2004, seemingly setting the template for Giovanni Trapattoni.

This has been the new reality of international football in the time that Ireland have been recovering from Saipan and then reeling under the management of Steve Staunton. The manner in which the bigger countries have been beset by more intense fatigue and mental pressure has allowed the smaller nations to bridge the gap.

Of course, the one significant argument against all of this is the identity of the last winners -- Spain.

The Spanish, after all, are not your typical elite international side. Underneath them, they have one of the most comprehensive and forward-thinking youth infrastructures seen in football. Running through them, then, they have the core of an historic Barcelona team. As such, they are not so much an international team side but an enhanced club who are cohesive enough to avoid the pitfalls other big countries face.

Compare them to England: the most obvious example of the malaise of major nations. The squad that Roy Hodgson has just taken over have been infamous for lacking an identity and even a will to play for the team. As Gary Neville is on record as saying, most of the players don't like the pressure and, as such, don't enjoy the experience.

In the little time he had with them, Fabio Capello is understood to have found it frustrating to impose a framework.

This is where lesser teams -- like Ireland -- have an advantage. Quite simply, it does actually mean more for them to play for their countries. Here, emotion can offset ability. As a result, it's also easier for a manager to apply a system that maximises resources.

And, whatever you think of his style, that is exactly what Trapattoni has done.

It was also exactly what Greece did.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to 'expect' Ireland to echo the Greeks.

In 2002, Roy Keane railed against those who were just happy to be there. Some 10 years on, he'd really be right.

Optimism should be kept in check. But quiet aims shouldn't. That, after all, is the new reality of international football.