International Football Can Be A Real Passion
The beginning of the international football break for many has in recent years almost become an inconvenience.
In contrast to the football both domestically and inter-continentally that is regularly served up, the international game has seemed to only serve up sub-standard football and a multitude of dead rubbers or non-contests. Decorated only by the tumbleweeds that encircle the games as crowds question their sanity of persisting with it.
You could argue that international football has had its day. With clubs boasting a littering of international players in their ranks that are on regular display, it becomes easier to harp back to the days of a bygone era, when it seemed international football was the one that mattered above all.
This week however, the international game began again to show signs of life. Beginning with a little twitch, by the end of Thursday night it seemed like its heart was pumping faster and louder than it has done for the best part of the last decade.
Perhaps this sentiment is coming from a from a particular viewpoint, having witnessed the Republic of Ireland put the World Champions Germany to the sword on the same night Northern Ireland secured qualification to a major tournament for the first time in 20 years.
Part of what makes football a great spectacle, is in its ability to provide you with the most unexpected moments of bliss in an instant. We all cherish them. Kevin Phillips rattling the net at Wembley in 2013, “David Hopkin, looking to curl one” at the same venue years earlier, Ray Houghton bagging a winner for Ireland against Italy at Giants Stadium in 1994 and notable Shane Long catching the German defence off pace and pummelling the ball past Manuel Neuer in Dublin on Thursday night.
Moments that echo through the ages. Moments that will outlive multiple generations, forever etched on the surface for all to revel in, and gain pride from.
Shane Long, Steven Davis and Josh Magennis’ glorious moments aside, what is particularly striking about the drama that unfolded across the water this week was the value it attributed to sheer human valour and endeavour. In a game that is increasingly awash with statistics, technical analysis and data, how do you mitigate and prepare for hungry and impassioned individuals who have more drive, more hunger and more will to succeed than an obviously far superior collection of players “on paper”?
That Northern Ireland qualified, and the Republic of Ireland have put themselves in a great position to follow suit, is testament to the fact that the sum of a sides parts can far outstrip the individual merits of an opponent.
Speaking as a long suffering Republic of Ireland supporter, to see a team of players pulled from Derby County, Ipswich Town, Norwich City, Burnley, Hull and Sunderland gain a famous and deserved victory against the World Champions with eight World Cup winners in their starting XI is what makes international football great.
While the individual moments are something to cling on to and cherish, the strength of team spirit and effort is something that conspires to make not just football but all sports an absolute marvel to part of.
It is hard not to draw comparisons between the heroics of both Irish sides this week, and a transformed Crystal Palace over the last three years.
Under Dougie Freedman and Ian Holloway, the spirit within Selhurst Park began to rise to stratospheric levels. Even when the chips were down when Palace went on an atrocious run of form the back-end of the promotion season, that collective sense of unity between the players visibly carried Palace through the play-offs and into the Premier League. The manner with which celebrations from the players on the turf at Wembley shifted to Glenn Murray told you everything you needed to know about what had taken shape at Crystal Palace.
The spirit that was fostered that season has been maintained. Damien Delaney spoke on the FYP podcast recently about his best moment in a Palace shirt, keeping a clean sheet against Millwall in that run-in. It gave a wonderful insight into the bond that had been growing between him and Danny Gabbidon and in the wider squad.
Hear players speak of Palace in the Premier League over the course of the last two years, and the spirit flowing through the squad is a consistent talking point. While struggling Sunderland and Newcastle bemoan what they see as a distinct lack of effort by their respective sides, Palace are treated weekly to a squad willing to put their bodies on the line and go to war to make sure they get the result that their hard work and unity merits.
Palace now are of course a different beast to the Palace that came up three years ago, with their own collection of internationals and quality. But the spirit remains.
When you see displays like Crystal Palace have been putting in consistently in the Premier League for the past two three seasons, and witness the steely hardworking grit of Richard Keogh of Derby County coming up trumps against the might of Thomas Muller of Bayern Munich, it is nigh on impossible not feel angry with yourself for ever questioning the merits of the game in the first place.
Many in Ireland fell back in love with the international game during the week. Scenes in Dublin and Belfast proved that. But while the moments live on, imprinted in memory, the spirit that underpins that is what gets juices flowing. When it comes out victorious, like it has done for Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Crystal Palace, there is no substituting its importance in keeping supporters in love with the game.
Moments will never be lost. Making sure that human valour and passion within the team you love is maintained will make it all the more worthwhile.