AAs I watched Ukrainian fans frolic after Artem Dovbyk sealed a World Cup final against Wales, Arrigo Sacchi’s observation that “football is the most important thing of the least things important in life” was particularly relevant. The players raised their fists in relief at a job half done, and the Ukrainian fans embraced, their minds inevitably turning to Cardiff. On Sunday they go again and it is now Rob Page’s job to make Wales the most unpopular team on the planet.
Oleksandr Zinchenko wept during the pre-match press conference on Wednesday as he described what reaching the World Cup would mean for the people of his war-torn homeland, and how he hoped to bring joy to a country that is suffering unimaginable suffering. As my admiration for this exceptional young man grew, I thought of all the people I’ve met who dismiss football as just 22 people kicking a ball. This game might have seemed a bit abstract for a few months (“Wales will face Scotland or Ukraine”) but sunday is now an event to make any fan’s heart beat faster. This is Ukraine at home. World cup qualifying. The winner takes it all.
To put the game in a sporting context, Wales haven’t attended a World Cup since the days when newscasters made jokes about the Suez crisis. Wales may have reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but 1958 hangs over us like Mambo No 5 (A Little Bit Of…) hangs over Lou Bega. The last time we competed on football’s biggest stage was before the invention of Coffee Mate. Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the rest of our golden generation could make history by qualifying for our first World Cup since the penny was legal tender. It’s a prospect that has captivated Welsh supporters for decades.
Even the most casual Welsh fan could tell you the highlights of our exploits at Sweden ’58. Wales reached the quarter-finals, knocked out by a lone goal from a 17-year-old Pelé, his first in a World Cup and a goal he would describe as ‘the most important goal he has ever had. marked” (and this was in an interview for Fifa, he was not doing a delicate after-dinner in Tregaron and not trying to involve drunken farmers). In classic Welsh tradition, our talisman John Charles and one of the best players in the world at the time was unavailable following injury in the previous game against Hungary, and while Tottenham greats Cliff Jones and Terry Medwin floated in an unanswered cross after an unanswered cross towards the Brazilian box. , Charles muttered to Jimmy Murphy, the Welsh manager: “I would have scored that.” Brazil went on to beat France and Sweden in the semi-finals and final respectively, and Wales’ relationship with the World Cup would go on to be a distant one for the next 64 years.
However, Wales will be preparing for the clash with Ukraine under very different circumstances than those facing Charles and his team-mates. The current squad have been training in warm weather in Portugal ahead of Wednesday’s Nations League loss to Poland, and will perform to an expectant crowd at the Cardiff City Stadium. The 1958 boys expected to train at Finchley FC before traveling to Sweden from London, but no one told the groundskeeper and they arrived in north London to find the ground was in the process of being to be reseeded.
With no time to find other facilities, Wales trained in Hyde Park using coats as goal posts, and Murphy spent those sessions watching overzealous park rangers as the games balloons were prohibited. Eventually a group of professional footballers having a kickabout caught people’s attention, and Murphy persuaded a staff member at Royal Parks to turn a blind eye, explaining that his players were about to represent Wales at a World Cup. However, not everyone was bothered by these amateur preparations. “We had trained in worse places,” Medwin said. “At least it was flat.”
Wales have come a long way since the 1950s. The Football Association of Wales is in the almost unique position of being a fan-favorite governing body, an institution made up of people who have earned their stripes as supporters. The Cardiff ground has also become home to fans and players, with the FAW resisting the temptation to move this game to the hated Principality Stadium, a ground twice as large but somehow generating less than half the ‘atmosphere.
Bale fired Wales in that final with two exquisite goals against Austria in March, and Ramsey (who qualified for the final Euros with two goals against Hungary in 2019, in his first appearance this campaign ) hopes to prove once again that a lack of playing time for his club does not prevent him from delivering winning performances for his country. What Welsh fans ask Bale or Ramsey is actually quite simple. One more career-defining display in a Welsh shirt. Give us the moment that will be repeated every day on Welsh TV until the sun finally swallows the Earth.
What sets this team apart from Welsh sides that have come awfully close to qualifying in the past is that they have played in games of enormous significance for years. A few of the class of 2016 remain. This current squad has experience from the Euro 2020 tournaments and tasted a lot from the World Cup qualifying defeat to the Republic of Ireland in 2017. After qualifying for Euro 2016, my friend Mark , a Wales veteran who stayed with the team through more bad times than good, ravingly told me that “1958 is no longer my ID number”. If Wales reach the 2022 World Cup, we could upset every neutral on the planet, but Welsh football fans will become a fraudster’s dream.