In time they will look back upon this qualifying campaign with pride, and it may prove to be the springboard to future success, but yesterday there was only despair as the Northern Ireland team surveyed the wreckage of their World Cup dream.
Wednesday's defeat to Slovakia effectively ended their chances of reaching South Africa. Even should Northern Ireland win their last qualifier in the Czech Republic next month they are unlikely to overtake second-placed Slovenia who have a game in hand, are yet to play pointless San Marino, and have the edge in head-to-heads (the deciding factor if two teams are level).
"I cannot start to tell you how disappointed I am," said manager Nigel Worthington. "I am gutted." Aaron Hughes, the captain, added: "I have not seen the atmosphere in the dressing room as low as it was after the game. Every one of the players is disappointed. It was all about getting the three points, it didn't matter how, but now there is only dejection."
The upside is that Northern Ireland's performance in qualifying means they should receive a higher seeding when the next tournament comes along, but that was little consolation yesterday.
The mood was much brighter in Portugal after Pepe, who is yet to play a league game for Real Madrid this season due to a 10-match ban for violent conduct, scored the only goal in Budapest to keep the 2006 semi-finalists in contention. Portugal could yet qualify automatically, after the Danes were held in Albania, but in reality may need Denmark to defeat Sweden next month, and then sneak into the play-offs ahead of the latter.
France still hope to qualify automatically, but while they should win their remaining ties at home to the Faroes and Austria, they need Serbia, with whom they drew in Belgrade on Wednesday, to fail to defeat either Romania at home or Lithuania away.
Another big-hitter still hoping to feature are Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions completed back-to-back wins over Gabon within a four-day period, Samuel Eto'o scoring in both matches, to leapfrog both Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo and Alain Giresse's Gabon to head their African qualifying group.
Perhaps the most dramatic match was in Riyadh where Saudi Arabia thought they had secured a final play-off against New Zealand when Hamad al-Montashari scored in injury time to put them 3-2 ahead against Bahrain in the Asian play-off. Yet Ismail Abdullatif levelled immediately to send the tiny Gulf kingdom through on away goals.
Finals countdown: Qualifiers so far
England this week joined 10 other countries who have confirmed their place at next summer's World Cup:
Australia, Brazil, England, Ghana, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Netherlands, Paraguay, South Africa, SpainReuse content