So, after 64 years of hurt, moans, groans, tears, anguish and stellar names missing out, Wales have finally made it to a World Cup.
When those annoying lists of ‘The best players not to be at the finals’ are compiled this time around, the names of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will be missing.
Oh for that to have been the case down the years for Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Neville Southall, Mark Hughes. The list goes on – Leighton James, John Toshack, Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed, Kevin Ratcliffe.
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It is truly remarkable that with such an abundance of talent, no Wales side previously made it since 1958. Looking at that list of stars – and I could easily throw in another dozen or so – you could almost argue Wales punched below their weight more than any other nation on the planet.
When epic World Cup tournaments have unfolded – Italia ’90, USA ’94, France ’98, South Korea, Germany, Brazil, South Africa and more – Welsh fans have scrambled around looking for a team to support.
Well not any more. It is the very fact we have seen the dark days that everyone in Wales can rightly celebrate today. This has been decades coming, so forgive those who want to savour every single beautiful minute.
Right through to the moment Wales finally come home from Qatar – having beating Gareth Southgate’s England in the final in the coastal city of Lusail seven days before Christmas! Well, if we’re going to dream, dream big I say.
Of course, that isn’t going to happen. It’s tongue-in-cheek. Just getting a point from Harry Kane and his mob in the final Group B game out in Qatar will be a mountainous enough task even for this truly vibrant Wales side.
But recent history, from the Euros anyway, tells us Bale and his team-mates won’t be heading out to the Middle East just to make up the numbers. No chance. Having finally got a Dragons side over the qualifying line, they’ll strongly fancy their chances of emerging from a pool containing Iran, USA and England.
Realistically, probably as runners-up to the old enemy this time, having topped Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions during that unforgettable summer out in France six years ago.
That was magical. It’ll probably never get any better. But however wonderful those Euros were, this is the World Cup and it’s a whole new ball game in terms of global appeal for our national side.
We may not march to the semi-finals once more, but this is another level again. The biggest football tournament on earth and indeed rivalling the Olympics for the biggest sporting event full stop.
Get out of the group and then it’s probably either the Netherlands or Senegal in the last 16. Heck, who knows what can happen once momentum builds? We’ve seen this before.
This current class may not be as defensively sound as Chris Coleman’s team who rampaged on France, but they’ve definitely got more firepower and goal threat with the likes of Kieffer Moore, Harry Wilson and Dan James joining Bale and Ramsey. Neco Williams and Connor Roberts aren’t too bad as swashbuckling full-backs who create, either.
It’s a good blend. Some of those players are capable of lighting up the finals. Not just the obvious ones, either.
At least they have the chance to, something the superstars of yesteryear unfortunately didn’t.
Mark Hughes’ team from the early noughties possessed a fearsome front three of Giggs, Bellamy and an on fire John Hartson, supported just behind by a bubble of creativity in Simon Davies. Danny Gabbidon, Mark Delaney and Gary Speed were three Rolls Royces at the back. Others who completed the line-up were Premier League regulars.
Yet they never really came close to World Cups in 2002 or 2006, although they were on the brink of the 2004 Euros in Portugal.
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These were some players, some team, and Sparky always felt if they qualified they’d light up the big stage. They would have done too, just like the Chris Coleman Class of 2016. But it never happened for them. The hardest bit was always in getting there.
A decade earlier, with Terry Yorath in charge, Wales boasted a glut of league title winners – Rush, Hughes, Ratcliffe, Southall. Aiding them were a couple of young Welsh legends in the making, Giggs and Speed (two more title winners), plus Dean Saunders, who tormented the finest defenders with his pace and scored so many goals Hughes was forced to drop back into midfield.
They had a raw deal, Germany and Holland, in their qualifying group for Italia ’90, but the big chance arrived for USA ’94. Again, it didn’t quite happen.
Prior to that, Mike England’s team of the 1980s was packed with many of the afore-mentioned superstars, possibly in their pomp, and who were surrounded by Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal stars in Micky Thomas, Joey Jones and Peter Nicholas.
Again, it wasn’t to be. Mike Smith’s team of the 1970s? Same old story, sadly.
As well as possessing world class footballers, the big thing those teams of yesteryear had in common with Rob Page’s side was a truly fabulous dressing room team spirit, coupled with a real passion to bring success to Wales. We can debate until the cows come home whether qualifying was harder or not back then, but what previous Wales teams lacked in the end was a Ramsey to control matches from the midfield and a Bale to drive them over the line.
Whatever misgivings fans of Juventus and Real Madrid may have about those two, that they have consistently delivered world class and matchwinning performances for their country for more than a decade is beyond question. Expect one or two more out in Qatar this autumn, too.
There is something special about this Wales side, a real Together Stronger mantra from reserve goalkeeper Adam Davies through to talisman and captain Bale. No-one, not even Gareth the Great, is too big for the team.
More teams can qualify for tournaments in the modern age, but they still had to get the job done. They have delivered in style. Again.
So what happens next? Well, once the Nations League games are out of the way, and they’re a little bit of a sideshow given what’s ahead, planning and preparation turns to the World Cup.
Wales’ first game is against the United States in Al Rayyan on Monday November 21, the biggest city outside of the capital Doha. It’s a 10pm kick-off local time, 8pm back home. A Welsh nation will be tuned in. They would be were it in the middle of the night.
The USA are no mugs. They’re higher in the FIFA rankings than Wales, beat Mexico to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup just 11 months ago and in Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic possess their own Bale-like talisman. But their results have been mixed since that triumph last summer. A further win over Mexico, defeats to Panama and Canada.
Wales will fancy their chances, but realistically the first game of any tournament tends to be tight and cagey. Dare not lose, rather than must-win. It has 1-1 written over it.
Next up, four days on at the same venue, this time with a 1pm kick-off time, it’s group minnows Iran. They’re hard to judge, but have only lost one of their last 15 games, to South Korea. Wales can expect to win this though. Bale, Ramsey and Neco will be too good. 2-0 or 2-1 to Wales.
Finally it’s England. Same venue again, 10pm kick-off time once more, this game taking place on Tuesday November 29.
The Three Lions are a different animal these days to the side Wales encountered in France, Gareth Southgate has relaxed them and they don’t tend to choke on the big stage. England will probably win their opening two games, meaning they’ll have already qualified and Southgate can field his second XI versus Wales.
Mind, that could still feature the likes of Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Bukayo Saka, so they’re hardly second-raters. Because of the Battle of Britain derby element, and more riding on the result for Wales, Bale and his team will be hopeful of a draw from this one.
They may lose 1-0 though, England have something of an Indian hold over Wales in recent games, six successive wins against various teams managed by Hughes, Toshack, Speed, Coleman and Giggs. But even if Wales do narrowly fall again, they’ll hope to have enough in the bank from the first two games to progress themselves, albeit it might need to be on goal difference. A USA versus Iran draw, with each losing to England, would suit Wales just fine.
At that stage, into the start of December, it’d be the winners from Group A in the knockout stages – Virgil Van Dijk and his Netherlands side, Sadio Mane and Senegal, possibly even the host nation if Qatar can get on a roll with the enormous home advantages favouring them.
And after that, should Wales get through? Well that would likely be Lionel Messi and his Argentina team in the quarter-finals.
Edge past them and Neymar and Brazil might be waiting in store.
This is Fantasy Football, of course. Wales are unlikely to get anywhere near that far (though we can always hope). But won’t it be fabulous, just for a change, to get out those wallcharts and plot the potential Welsh journey.
This time the choice of which team to support, the path they can take, is easy. Roll on Qatar 2022 – savour the moment, everybody. I certainly am.