Northern Ireland have thrice qualified for the FIFA World Cup ™ finals, advancing past the first round at their first two appearances in 1958 and 1982. Four years later though, defeats by Spain and Brazil and a draw against Algeria were not good enough to see the team stay in the competition.
Despite a strong tradition of producing footballers, most famously George Best, Northern Ireland's football team has gone through some incredibly difficult times in the last few years. Most remarkably was the painful 12 matches, or 1,242 minutes, the side went without scoring a goal between April 2002 and February 2004.
Although the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign started badly with a 3-0 home defeat to Poland, and indeed the first six qualifiers passed without a victory, Northern Ireland began to make progress, particularly in front of goal as they recorded three draws, away to Wales and Azerbaijan and at home against Austria.
Their first competitive victory in almost four years came in the 2-0 home win over Azerbaijan on 3 September 2005. Then, four days later, came the far more memorable 1-0 triumph over England at the atmospheric Windsor Park, with David Healy scoring the all-important goal 17 minutes from time. Yet the team was unable to capitalise on those results as they concluded their qualifying campaign with defeats at home to Wales and away to Austria.
Qualification for UEFA EURO 2008 proved to be a bridge too far for the team, yet they did enjoy home victories Spain and Sweden, which served to boost their position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking ahead of the Preliminary Draw to South Africa 2010.