Fans, players and coaching staff alike; everyone has a story to tell about their journey to the World Cup. Few, however, can be more remarkable than one man who has gone from the Irish League to the greatest show on earth in less than two years.
Julian Ward, who played with Larne and Lisburn Distillery in the Irish League up until 2008, is in South Africa as part of Portugal’s technical staff.
His role as part of their scouting team sees him work with some of the game’s top names, including the world’s most expensive player, Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who will hope to turn it on against Spain in a mouth-watering last 16 clash tonight.
It has been an incredible journey from Inver Park to Cape Town. So, how did he get there?
Totally out of the blue comes the answer.
“A former colleague of mine who now scouts in England, used to work with the Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz,” Ward explains.
“Back in July 2008, when Carlos was first appointed, he was looking to put together his coaching and scouting team.
“I was actually walking to my car in Jordanstown car park to get my gear ready to go training with Distillery when I received a call out of the blue from Carlos.
“He asked me if I could go over to meet him in Manchester for an interview.
“I stayed there a couple of days, discussed the project and then flew out to Lisbon the next week to start preparations for a friendly game against the Faroe Islands before the qualifiers in September.”
After a few worries along the way Portugal eventually topped their qualifying group to ensure a passport to the World Cup finals.
Ward and the rest of the Portuguese contingent arrived in Johannesburg at the start of the month before setting up camp in Magaliesburg, just 30 minutes away from where England had their training base.
“Having grown up being glued to the TV for a month every four years, now I’m here,” he adds.
“It’s incredible. Having the opportunity to work for the Portuguese national team is as big a challenge, as it is an honour.
“After the FIFA draw took place for the finals in December, myself and our chief scout José Alberto Costa observed and analysed our group opponents Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea.
“The other focus has been monitoring the form of a pool of Portuguese players scattered across eight or nine European leagues. With league games and the Europa and Champions League we have had plenty of games to follow.”
Part of Ward’s job now is to work alongside some of Europe’s biggest stars, both in the surroundings of training and during matches. Having played to a semi-professional level in both England and closer to home in the Irish League, Ward is well placed to see what the superstars offer in close quarters.
“For me, the thing that always impresses is the players' ability to receive balls played to them with pace,” he explains.
“They have the courage to receive the ball in tight spaces and under pressure.
“I suppose you always have extra respect for the things you do not do so well yourself!
“When teams are well matched at the highest level, it can be small details that make the big difference.”
The stars Ward is rubbing shoulders with are not just restricted to on the pitch, as he continues his work under Queiroz, who reluctantly left Manchester United, where he worked as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant, to take up the job of coaching his national side.
“The manager has nearly 30 years of experience, coaching in Japan, La Liga, South Africa, America and England,” Ward points out.
“I am fortunate to be able to take on board a lot from being around the training and coaching sessions, but also he has a fantastic appreciation of how players and football differs across different cultures.”
From the Irish League to the World Cup, Ward truly is living the dream.