There’s an old saying that a week is a long time in football, but that would fail to do justice to the 180 seconds or so between the agony and ecstasy experienced by Egypt’s national side on Saturday. Needing victory over Congo in Alexandria to ensure a place at the World Cup for the first time in 27 years, the Pharaohs were in front only for the visitors to peg them back in the 89th minute. Their talisman Mo Salah dropped to the turf crestfallen, but just moments later he was standing over a penalty with a chance for redemption. Salah paced a few steps backwards, galloped forwards and put his left foot through and firm. Despite the pace it flew through the air, the ball appeared to orbit at the speed of tectonic plates before nestling in the corner of the net. Cue pandemonium.
The full-time whistle blew and Egyptians invaded the pitch from four corners. The streets of Cairo were wedged as thousands upon thousands celebrated loudly. Already a national hero, Salah had further solidified his iconic status in his homeland. The 25 year-old has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, lined up in the Champions League and won titles, but it would be a surprise if this didn’t rank near the very top of his footballing achievements thus far. More improbably, 44 year-old keeper Essam El-Hadary – who has mostly plied his trade in his homeland – now has a chance to become the oldest player to ever play at a World Cup.
Ireland have more frequent experience of major tournaments in recent years, reaching the last two European Championships, but that didn’t diminish the atmosphere in the Welsh capital on Monday evening whatsoever. Wales were semi-finalists in France, yet hadn’t reached a World Cup since 1958. There was an electricity in the air at the Cardiff City Stadium reserved for special occasions, as Welsh fans belted out their national anthem Land of Our Fathers a cappella prior to kickoff.
Beforehand, Chris Coleman accurately predicted a physical contest that would be lacking in the possession and passing witnessed at the top end of the Premier League and elsewhere. Monday’s meeting between the two was low on technical skill or quality, but the tension of the occasion made for gripping viewing. Ireland defended deeply and batted away Welsh pressure without threatening themselves. When the chance arrived though, they were clinical. Jeff Hendrick dispossessed Ashley Williams and scampered down the line. The midfielder pulled a cross back to the edge of the box which was cleverly dummied by Harry Arter. As he has done throughout the campaign, James McClean ruthlessly put away the chance and sent the travelling support into raptures.
McClean is perhaps the shining example of international football’s broader appeal. The Derry native often resembles a family’s black sheep at club level, struggling to find his place in the world. As a Premier League player, he is more synonymous with refusing to wear the poppy than any on-field related activity. But when he puts on a green shirt (or white in this instance) he morphs into a completely different player, relentlessly tearing down the flank and producing match winning moments throughout the past 18 months.
Meanwhile in Reykjavik, Iceland were securing their place in Russia. A comfortable 2-0 victory over Kosovo gives them the opportunity to create history of their own as the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. Before Euro 2016, they had never made a major tournament. Now a sizeable chunk of their 300,000 population will be making the trip to watch them grace the world stage. Many of Iceland’s players are unknown outside of their minuscule island, but within their country they are lauded as heroes.
“This is really odd, I don’t know what to say. I mean … Pelé, Maradona, Aron Einar Gunnarsson,” Iceland manager and part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson said at a function thrown for the team on Ingolfstorg Square in the city centre.
In that line, Hallgrimsson unwittingly encapsulated the beauty of international football. For some more supremely gifted footballers, there are Champions League medals, the position of notoriety and legendary status attained. Others aren’t as blessed, but international football provides the likes of McClean the opportunity to rub shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. For Ireland’s captain on the night David Meyler – who has yo-yoed between the lower echelons of the top flight and the Championship – this meant the world. “Alongside my debut for Ireland, this is the finest moment of my career.”
It’s safe to assume lining out for their country isn’t always the top priority for the best players from major clubs – especially in England – and that sentiment is shared by many supporters. Many of those fortunate enough to live close to a Premier League club and can afford to attend matches regularly don’t get the appeal of it and agitate for the next round of league fixtures no sooner have internationals flown out of the country.
There is undoubtedly a disconnect between the English public at large and Gareth Southgate’s side, as demonstrated by the declining Wembley attendances. England haven’t lost a qualifying game since 2009, so there isn’t much incentive for people to pay their hard earned cash and travel up to London to watch a formality.
As alluded previously, FIFA and UEFA have plenty of work to undertake to restore some prestige to the international game. This week, the Independent published a collection of pieces outlining potential solutions to make it better. The elongated qualifying structure, the inconvenient breaks just as the club season is hitting its stride. The latter stages of the Champions League – with its galaxy of stars increasingly congregating in a select few super clubs – delivers possibly the highest standard of football we’ve ever witnessed. And, even though the World Cup is still the most viewed sporting event in the world, it’s no longer the benchmark for a player.
At the same time, international football creates unlikely heroes, unites fractured societies and even allows for a country like Panama to pip the United States – who have a population 700 times the size of theirs – to qualification. It’s hard to fully explain the jubilant scenes in Cairo, Cardiff and Reykjavik – where the football public are chuffed just to have even made a tournament – to larger countries where success is measured differently. If this past week has thought is anything, it’s that many flaws exist but that international football still very much warrants a place in the football calendar.